Review | Tuesday 25 October 2011
There have been a whole lot of gratifying things going on in the world of Steven Amsterdam – and that’s even before publication of What the Family Needed, his keenly awaited and quite wonderful second novel.
Firstly when I asked the folk at Readingsland whether they were interested in reading an advance copy, I had a deluge of interest, with many people mentioning just how much they loved his debut, Things We Didn’t See Coming.
Next, I saw that Things We Didn’t See Coming has been recalled for another three years to the VCE English reading list. It struck me that the real reportable fact would be when Amsterdam is off the list, because to my mind whenever the committee tire of the first novel, they are surely going to want to embrace the second!
Thirdly I had the good fortune to conduct an interview with Amsterdam recently and in one little remark I got the key to why I dig his novels so much: ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about the predictable rhythms of novels and this [disconnect] has been one way that (I hope) I’ve avoided them.’ Namely here is a writer who figures that if you allow the reader to more actively fill the narrative gaps – here by engineering a time lapse between each chapter and changing the narrative point of view also – you give the reader considerably more agency in the reading experience. Mind you, the reader still has to care enough about the characters and their journey…but you will!
Finally I happened to notice that Chloe Hooper has endorsed this book as follows: ‘Wry, deeply moving and literally magical.’ It’s a very rare thing that Hooper offers a book endorsement, so you know for sure that this book must be one out of the box!
So all that by preamble to state that in What the Family Needed Amsterdam seems to my mind to be at the height of his considerable literary powers. A tale of a couple of chalk ’n’ cheese sisters, their respective spouses (ditto), and their teenage siblings – all of them tangled up in what appears to be the ‘wrong version’ of their lives. How those young people in particular make their journey through life, and the means by which they do so, is some of the magic that Chloe refers to. And it becomes a new spin on the trope of the novel about family secrets – what if you can actually access them all along in life? What would you/could you do differently?
It’s a book where almost line for line you’ll be unable to wipe the smile off your face; it’s also one where you will marvel at the human sympathy Amsterdam brings to his characters as they encounter life’s random travails. The jolt for the members of these two families comes when they realise that only they as individuals can be the conductors of their lives. But the electricity’s all in the pen of the redoubtable Steven Amsterdam.
Martin Shaw, Readings’ Books Division Manager, is what they call a “career bookseller”, which might be an interesting concept as the world turns “E”. Formerly an avid fiction reader, now “Jolly Jumper” supervisor to an adorable 7-month-old. Follow him on twitter - @thebooksdesk
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