What the Family Needed is the exhilarating second novel by New Yorker-cum-Melbourner, Steven Amsterdam. This had been on my to-read list for a while. It never left my radar because its speculative fiction premise – an ordinary suburban family with superpowers – had me intrigued. What the Family Needed has received a few superficial comparisons to The Incredibles, and while I wouldn’t say that’s entirely off the mark, I do think it’s a somewhat dismissive assessment, one that ultimately sells Amsterdam’s achievement short.
What the Family Needed opens with that classic catalyst, divorce. When Ruth leaves her husband, she and her two children take refuge with Ruth’s sister Natalie. Every family member – three adults and four children – gets a chapter, or section, in their own perspective. These characters don’t remain static either. Unflagged jumps in time and space occur between each section. Main character, Alek, for instance, begins the novel at seven and ends up in his forties. Fortunately, it’s never too much work to find one’s bearings. Personally, I enjoyed having to reorientate and make deductions from the narrative crumbs Amsterdam so effortlessly casts our way. (‘Oh, so that’s what became of that character!’) I won’t hark on too much longer about the shifting narrators, but I will say that while this device mightn’t be for everyone (readers who want to relax, follow an easy narrative, rather than disentangle it, may find themselves frustrated), it makes for a story that refuses to play to the reader’s expectations. Half the fun is surrendering to the narrative and seeing where it’ll lead you next. I loved this; close reading is rewarded and the reader’s intelligence appealed to.
I suppose what any prospective readers want to know about the powers. I would say they are deftly handled; they’re not the focal point of the novel, but they are very prevalent. See, unlike with The Incredibles, the characters in this novel aren’t superheroes. They don’t use their abilities to fight crime, nor do they don’t exploit them to their own selfish ends (well, much). Really, the powers (invisibility, flight and mind control, to name a few; to say more would spoil the surprises) exist to punctuate whatever psychological journey that character is going through. Often they’re symbolic of that character’s traits or spirit which, in lesser hands, might’ve come off as trite as it sounds. What the Family Needed is far from trite, though. If anything, the powers heighten the sense of poignancy. There’s no hammy sentimentality, I assure. I say all this because I want to emphasise that this is not a superhero adventure story. Readers expecting that will be disappointed. What it is is quirky, and sometimes funny, literary fiction. What the Family Needed closely and warmly examines the model of the modern family.
Amsterdam’s prose is warm and full of verve. Though he doesn’t shy away from describing dark subject matter, a playfulness pervades. Really, though it sounds silly to say, I found the tone life affirming.
In a sense, the writing is workmanlike, preferring to focus plot rather than deviate with flowery observations or philosophical asides. (The exception to this is the final section, Alek’s, which takes an almost existential turn.) Amsterdam’s turn of phrase is silky smooth – accessible, but not dumbed down. Rather, it’s the subtext, the narrative jumps and the surprises that will have you contemplating. Amsterdam leaves a few plot points open, as if inviting us to reach our own conclusions. Just the way I way it.
Steven Amsterdam is an accomplished writer and this book, What the Family Needed, is one of my standouts of the year.