Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2012

What the Family Needed (2011), by Steven Amsterdam

What the Family NeededMelbourne author Steven Amsterdam came to international attention in 2009 with the publication of his first book, Things We Didn’t See Coming which won The Age Book of the Year and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.  This second novel, What the Family Needed shows no signs of Second Book Syndrome: his style is inventive and playful.  That playfulness, and the sense that there might be liberating alternate realities reminds me of John Banville’s The Infinities (see my review), and has the same preoccupation with fraught family relationships.  But there the similarities end: What the Family Needed is uniquely original.  (Oops, Amsterdam’s inventiveness is such a temptation towards tautology!)

The title, as the reader discovers in the concluding chapter, is apt.  The story begins with a family reunion of sorts: Ruth and her two children Giordana and Ben have moved in with Natalie and Peter and their sons Alek and Sasha because Ruth has left her husband.  Giordana’s is the first of multiple perspectives, each revealing events from their own point-of-view, from different points in the family’s timeline.  But from the normalcy of family life Amsterdam weaves a little magic: each character has a special gift, one that challenges the reader’s view of reality.  Giordana, for example, can become invisible, as and when she pleases.

This invisibility is not like H.G.Wells’ The Invisible Man , where invisibility is an irreversible curse that’s a catalyst for crime.  Griffin’s self-inflicted condition leaves him with few choices: invisible, he is a victim of small town rejection of anything that’s different, and then he is betrayed.  Amsterdam’s riff on this idea from Plato’s Ring of Gyges in The Republic is more sophisticated and more morally complex.

The Ring of Gyges is a parable which reveals how people would behave morally if they had no fear of being caught out.  Amsterdam asks, how would a teenage girl behave if she could eavesdrop on household conversations, overhear those uncensored adult discussions or follow an older sibling on a romantic assignation? How would a middle-aged woman use her knowledge of the innermost thoughts of other people, in her work as a palliative care nurse or in her own love life?  Would a troubled soul who could fly, soar away never to return – or is there a homing instinct? Would it be satisfying to change the past to ease regret?

It is the chapter about Peter, lost in a morass of grief after the sudden death of his wife, that moved me most.  Peter receives what he thinks is a senseless gift: he can wish for peaches out of season, but not for the one thing he really wants.

Peter’s sister-in-law has come to sort out Natalie’s clothes…

Ruth wrapped herself in Natalie’s pale blue cardigan, saying, ‘I always loved this, but I don’t know if I could stand to wear it.’

Peter nodded once, to let her know that it was all right if she did.  Natalie used to put it on for gardening.  It mystified him, but she always managed to keep it spotless.  Would he be able to stand it if Ruth wore it till it was stained and moth-eaten? If she didn’t take it, could he let it go to the Salvation Army – that recycler of lives? Yes, yes.  He tried to consider it all.  The clothes were there, they were connected to Natalie, but they weren’t her.  He saw each garment in crisp detail.  They didn’t make her her, any more than Peter had – or any more than she had made him him.  Peter had not been her conductor and Natalie had not been his.  This was the clarity he had been waiting for.  You live your life adjusting the notes, meddling with tempos.  You silence the brass, chase crescendos, but only you get to be the conductor.  They had stood next to each other on different podiums, waving their little sticks for all those years.

This was why he couldn’t bring her back.  It was as if the power itself had come to underline this point: it was his life to master.  The thought that they were truly different people didn’t depress him now.  No, it made his mind rise, excited him that they had stayed in tune for as long as they had.  They had done well.  (p228)

This is true wisdom, and the imagery is perfect.

Is there magic in this book?  Magic realism only ‘works’ if it belongs in the story.  There should be no ‘huh??’ moment to befuddle or irritate the reader.  Karenlee Thompson’s wizardry works in 8 States of Catastrophe, and Glenda Guest’s works in Siddon Rock because all of us moving through the vast Australian Outback have yearned to be there without the intervening miles.  These storytellers have vanquished ‘are we there yet?’ with a stroke of the pen.  But Amsterdam’s story is urban, its map is the map of the human soul muddling around in the 21st century family.  His magic is ambiguous: we are never really sure if the gifts these characters discover come from their own inner life, or from Alek, with a mental illness that shapes a different reality for himself.  From the outset, it doesn’t matter.  The magic, real or imagined, works.  It reveals the mysteries of life to the characters…

Amsterdam’s characterisation shifts across generations with authentic portraits.  Giordana’s perspective is darkly comic, self-deprecating and wry, as an adolescent view of the world often is; Ruth’s middle-aged persona is self-doubting yet professionally confident.  The passage of time is lightly sketched: Amsterdam has an impressionist style that avoids cumbersome detail.

I liked this book very much, and am glad I hoarded a copy of Things We Didn’t See Coming.  (It’s lurking on the A shelf, I hope!)

Highly recommended.

This book has been widely reviewed.  Cate Kennedy at The Monthly enjoyed Amsterdam’s ‘ferocious intelligence and playful curiosity’; Greg Day at the SMH had reservations about its ambiguities.

You can find out more about Steven Amsterdam here.

Author: Steve Amsterdam
Title: What the Family Needed
Publisher: Sleepers Publishing 2011
ISBN: 9781742702117
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Readings $24.95

Availability: What the Family Needed


  1. Great review Lisa sounds like a fascinating story, I’m going to have to get this one :) Also, from my own thoughts it is a reminder to me in trying to write my own novel, to slow down and take the time to write it how I wish to and to do the best job that I can and not be in so much of a hurry as to short change a good story. Here’s hoping.


    • Yes! Let the story tell itself – I read just recently somewhere that characters often seem to have a ‘mind of their own’ and won’t let the author steer them in a direction they don’t want to go. I find this even when I’m writing reviews, that they take off in a direction that wasn’t there when I first began writing, and I just have to take the time to let those thoughts sort themselves out.
      One of the interesting things about this book is that it’s another example of Sleepers Publishing – a small, indie publisher – being willing to take a risk on something that’s a bit different and letting the author tell his own story. There must be a very good editor indeed at Sleepers…


  2. Sleepers Pub. That’s a good tip! haha.


  3. Thanks for your excellent review. The quote would be enough to convince me to read the book, but you add so much more–including other book suggestions which I love.


    • Hi, not being constrained by space is one of the big advantages of blog reviews…it’s lovely to be able to show the author’s style with a quotation, the hard part is always choosing which one!


  4. I agree with mdbrady, the quote is a wonderful enticement. The idea that we adjust notes and melodies, waving our little sticks on individual podiums in order to live in harmony is beautiful. And beautifully written by Amsterdam.


    • Thanks, Karen – woudn’t this make a nice quotation for a wedding ceremony!


      • Oh absolutely. I can picture the scene. I might have to write it into a novel one day.


  5. Hi Lisa, Great review. I saw Steven Amsterdam at SWF and he discussed his experience with Sleepers Publishing. There’s only two employees there! His first novel was their first so they learnt along the way. In publishing What the Family Needed they learned new things. It needed more editing than his first, which was a different experience for everyone concerned. But they obviously know their stuff. Kudos to them, and to Amsterdam for sticking with them. He said he couldn’t think of a reason to leave them. John


  6. Great review, Lisa. Amsterdam is a supremely talented, and empathetic, writer. Wait until you see how different his first book is. I’m a fan of both of them but the first is still my favourite (but I think that’s purely a personal thing, I find the themes fascinating). I’m glad you’re reading him.


    • Hi Angela (I’m glad that comp is out of the way and we can go back to chatting LOL)
      It is so true, your comment in your review, ( that the ‘poignancy of this novel really sneaks up on you’ – and IMO that makes it all the more effective. Before you know it, the plot connects with some aspect of your own life, and the emotional impact is stunning.
      PS My spies tell me that they enjoyed the session you chaired at the SWF!


  7. I read this for book club last month, and we had a big debate about whether we thought the ending was happy or sad. A few of us thought it was happy, but most of us found it horribly depressing.



    • Depressing? How interesting! I hadn’t thought of it like that at all. Why did it feel that way?


      • Everyone who hasn’t read it should look away now. SPOILERS.

        That final sequence with Alek, where he’s rebuilding the world around him so it looks like he was a “good” son – I found that really sad. That you have to deny an inherent part of yourself to make your family happy is a really depressing thought.


        • Ah. I see. There were other aspects of that chapter, especially his regrets about, a-hem, a certain major intervention, that provide food for thought. But I can see why your group disagreed about it: I felt that he had reached a kind of accommodation, and that his family, clumsy though their efforts were, had too. I liked the way Dad in particular stumbled towards letting go of his rigid expectations, even though you could see him messing it up sometimes. It’s hard for parents to let go of their dreams too.


  8. I definitely want to read this. I found his first novel intriguing but frustratingly elusive. There’s another KYD podcast interview with Amsterdam about this book


    • I can see that I must dig out my copy of Things We Didn’t Coming before too much longer!


  9. […] What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam, see my review […]


  10. […] there for a very long time).  I’ve read and liked two further novels by Steven Amsterdam, What the Family Needed and The Easy Way Out, but Things We Didn’t See Coming is his first novel, and it won The Age […]


  11. […] there for a very long time).  I’ve read and liked two further novels by Steven Amsterdam, What the Family Needed and The Easy Way Out, but Things We Didn’t See Coming is his first novel, and it won The Age […]


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