‘It’s a good life’ – What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam

First things first: a few first things first. For those of you who are given to catching yourself looking up from the book you’re reading mumbling the author’s name in a way that suggests you just might have found an author to keep an eye out for in the future but who have yet to mumble the name ‘Steven Amsterdam’ – know that he is the author of an excellent debut called Things We Didn’t See Coming. Things We Didn’t See Coming is the kind of novel you read, possibly on the quiet recommendation of another serious reader friend, and love and find yourself quietly recommending to other people. His second novel, What the Family Needed, crept up on me unaware. By which I mean to say that I wasn’t aware of its existence, relatively hard on the heels of its debut, until I opened the envelope and it fell in my proverbial lap. I don’t know about you, but surprises of this sort – books by authors I’m interested in that creep up on me unawares – are pretty few and far between. A couple of other first things first before we get to the meat and two veg: I don’t particularly like the cover (the illustration and the back cover copy) and I’m not overly fond of the title. This was a novel I started with, shall we say, reservations.

The novel opens, we presume, sort of nowish (although the events that follow last a good few decades, there are no real indicators of time, people don’t talk about Twitter or whatever the equivalent might be – we hover in a perpetual contemporary nowishness, as if all of the characters are running on the spot, even as they age, Simpsons-like). Giordana and her mum and her brother are shacking up at their auntie’s place because her mum and dad’s marriage is on the rocks and it’s all pretty final. We are lulled by the gentle way in which Giordana (and implicitly Amsterdam) introduces a bunch of characters, two families and a babysitter, each of whom cluck about each other as families are wont to do – and then a very curious thing happens (a curious thing that recalls the moment in Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude when they discover the magic ring): Giordana is gifted the power of invisibility and finds herself blinking in and out of sight. But don’t worry (and don’t be misled by the cover and the cover copy!) – this is no YA title. Imagine a magic realist Visit from the Goon Squad and you’ll be far closer to the mark. Each subsequent chapter inhabits the perspective of another family member each of whom are either gifted with or suddenly seem to possess a new, remarkable ability: Giordana’s aunt Natalie reacts to the growing strangeness of her son Alek by swimming like a fish; Ben, struggling with fatherhood and marriage, discovers the ease of flight; Ruth can hear the thoughts of others. And so it goes.

Unlike Things We Didn’t See Coming (which attempted to wrongfoot the reader, in a way, by holding one or two meaningful explanations just out of sight), What the Family Needed does resolve a lot of the magical elements by the conclusion (in a way that recalls an old Twilight Zone episode called ‘It’s a Good Life’ which is itself well worth checking out if you have the wherewithal) – and the resolution isn’t pat or overly neat. The writing is taut yet there is flexibility there, a willingness to accept and bend, and this reader was left with the very definite sense that Amsterdam has improved between book 1 and book 2. The only criticism this reader could level, as I said, is at the YA cover and the title (I played a game as I drew to the close, trying to choose better titles – I thought ‘The Way They Had Always Been’, ‘What Needed To Be Done’ and ‘Tales from Other Lands’ (all drawn from the text) would have made better titles). But hopefully you can see what little criticism this is. What the Family Needed is for me one of a handful of novels that have made 2012 worthwhile. Steven Amsterdam is now firmly among those writers – think Patrick DeWitt, Joshua Ferris – whose future work I eagerly anticipate.

Any Cop?: If you don’t mind having your reality shaken up a bit with an off smidge of something improbable, then Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed is very definitely for you.

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