Steven Amsterdam

Sleepers (2011)

ISBN: 978-1-74270-211-7

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

DISCLAIMER: Lorraine Cormack is a judge for the Aurealis Awards. This review is the personal opinion of the writer, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinator or the Aurealis Awards management team.

What the Family Needed is a surprising book, in part because some of the quotes on the cover are, I feel, rather misleading, particularly the one that compared it to The Incredibles. It is also likely to prove a surprise to some people as I suspect some booksellers won’t quite know how to categorise it, which may lead to some surprised readers who thought they were buying a different kind of book. However, for the most part it was a happy surprise; this was a good book, far more interesting and complex than some of the cover comments suggested.

Each chapter of this book is told by a different family member, each describing a point of time in their life. Eventually these chapters build a (slightly fragmented) story of a family over around thirty years. And if that sounds like this is a massive epic, again it will surprise you; it’s less than 300 pages and a relatively quick read.

Each family member describes a time when they find a new power blossoming in them. In the first chapter, teenage Giordana discovers that she can make herself invisible at will. She’s not sure how or why, or exactly what use it will be to her. But her family is falling apart, and she uses her new power to spy on them to try to get some sense of what is really happening. She knows her mother has left her father, perhaps for good this time. Giordana, her older brother Ben, and her mother have run to her aunt’s house for sanctuary.

We see chapters from the point of view of Giordana and Ben’s mother, Ben, their aunt Natalie, uncle Peter, cousin Sasha, and cousin Alek. Each has a different perspective on the family dynamics of the decades we watch, and each discovers and uses a new power in a different way.

This is a more subtle book than your average fantasy; the magic realism is used to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and helps the reader to develop a sense of what holds this family together. It’s a very engrossing book, warm and engaging, and although there are few moments of high drama it’s a hard novel to put down. A very realistic depiction of family life underpins the story, and Amsterdam is perceptive in his characterisations.

The slightly ambiguous ending won’t appeal to everyone, but I felt it fitted the novel well, both casting everything that had gone before in a new light and also providing a sense that we had reached an appropriate point to leave the family. Earlier in the novel I had wondered how he was going to satisfactorily end such an episodic novel without a clear dramatic arc; I think Amsterdam managed this remarkably effectively. It does take the novel in a new direction, and if you think about it too hard then it doesn’t quite work. There’s something about that final chapter that falls a little short of the believability of the earlier chapters – I think perhaps it’s because each of the earlier chapters fitted into a shared reality despite their different perspectives, but this final chapter veers quite sharply from the established family history. I was willing to go with it, but it didn’t have quite the ring of conviction of the earlier chapters.

Still, I really enjoyed What the Family Needed; I think a lot of people would enjoy it, but I’m not sure how easily they’ll come across the novel given that it kind of straddles the line between fantasy and literature and may be presented in different places in bookshops. Nevertheless, consider tracking it down and trying it. The novel is not quite perfect, but it’s a second novel; Amsterdam would seem a writer to watch in future.