Melbourne 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!)
You can find out more about Steven Amsterdam here.
Author: Steve Amsterdam
Title: What the Family Needed
Publisher: Sleepers Publishing 2011
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Readings $24.95
Availability: What the Family Needed