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Review: What the Family Needed

[Published on Meanjin.com.au, November 28 2011]

Sometimes it takes extraordinary power to survive the everyday. This is the premise of Steven Amsterdam’s second book, What the Family Needed, which follows the domestic dramas of sisters Ruth and Natalie, and their extended families. This idea may be something of a truism, and in the hands of a lesser writer it would remain so. Lucky for us, we are in Amsterdam’s, who deftly renders a far-reaching family portrait that is witty, warm and wistful in equal measures.

Like Amsterdam’s award-winning debut, Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), What the Family Needed could also be termed ‘speculative fiction’. Structurally, the two novels are quite similar. Each chapter can stand alone as a short story, here traversing the lives of seven family members across three decades. But Amsterdam’s tone is far less apocalyptic this time around.

Where previously he imagined a dystopian not-too-distant future in which near every impending global disaster was realised, in this novel the threat comes from the inside — the emotions, behaviours and actions of families, and the ways that their after-effects can ripple across other members’ lives. The novel’s central device is a kind of wish fulfilment made real. As each character struggles to cope with the stresses of family life, Amsterdam offers them a yearned for supernatural ability to help them on their way.

We open on the family at crisis point. Told from Ruth’s daughter Giordana’s perspective, her mother has just deserted her alcoholic father, packing up the unsuspecting kids for a ‘holiday’ at their Aunt Natalie and Uncle Peter’s house. The roles between adults and children have grown indistinct, and the teenage Giordana longs to disappear. So when her seven-year-old cousin Alek asks, “Ok, tell me which you want: to be able to fly or be invisible?”, she instinctively picks the latter. In Amsterdam’s world, however, this is not merely a child’s imaginary game of superheroes versus supervillains, nor are the stakes purely good versus evil. And as Amsterdam stresses throughout the novel, “just because it was magic didn’t mean that it was easy”.

“Single-most single” Sasha is bestowed with a cupid-like power that makes any two people fall blindly in love if he touches them simultaneously, acting like a romantic conduit. Yet his power is futile in fixing his own love life. Sasha must instead swallow his all too human pride and confront his ex-boyfriend Damon with humility. After Natalie’s death, Peter is given the power to alter reality through the power of his thoughts, which grants him everything but his ultimate wish — to bring her back. Moreover, some powers are not necessarily a blessing. Night nurse Ruth is given the ability to read thoughts, but in a hospital bustling with grief and regret it doesn’t really seem like a gift.

It is Alek who bestows these powers onto his family, granting him the kind of control normally reserved for Amsterdam himself as the writer. As Alek implores to Ben, “All we have to do is pick a different story, one where we get what we want”. Alek believes he can alter the fabric of time, change history, implant memories — hell, he can even give his family superpowers. But the drawbacks of Alek’s gift could well describe the way Amsterdam apparently conceives of family life — for every action there is a reaction, a kind of butterfly effect where each character’s movements, however minute, will invariably alter the flight paths of those around them.

By the novel’s conclusion, the revelations of Alek’s power throws the surrounding narrative into disarray. If Alek has the ability to alter not only the present but also the past, each character’s story cannot be trusted. We are unable to tell if we are inside the mind of a visionary or a psychotic suffering from delusions of grandeur.

This is much a novel about the passing of time as it is about family, and the ways our actions and the actions of the people around us can influence the way our lives unfold, often not in the ways that we envisage. Amsterdam’s concept of temporality acts almost like an antidote to that of Jennifer Egan in last year’s A Visit From the Goon Squad — what if time were not a goon that catches up with us all in the end? What if we had the ability to alter our pasts as much as our future?

What each of Amsterdam’s characters must discover, however, is that they are not the “authors” or “conductors” of those around them. No matter what superpower they choose, the lesson that they each must learn is the ties that bind families are not so easily severed.

As in his debut, Amsterdam places a lot of trust in his reader. He knows that as much meaning exists in what is unsaid as in the stories themselves, and bestows us with the power to fill in the blanks.

What the Family Needed is out now through Sleepers Publishing.

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