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Laurie Steed, You belong here (#BookReview)

September 8, 2018

Laurie Steed, You belong hereMy first reaction as I started reading Laurie Steed’s debut novel, You belong here, was, “oh dear, another novel about a dysfunctional family”, but I was quickly disabused of that prejudice because while that is indeed the book’s “genre”, Steed writes it in such a fresh and engaging way, albeit seriously so, that I was soon engrossed in his Slater Family.

You belong here is an ambitious novel, spanning over four decades from 1972, when Jen and Steven are 16 years old, to 2015 when their grandchild turns 13. This is the span you’d normally find in a family saga of 400 pages or so, but Steed does it in under 250 pages. How does he do it?

First, though, the basic plot. It concerns the marriage and its subsequent breakdown, of the above-named Jen and Steven, and the impact on their three children, Alex, Emily and Jay. Australian author Melanie Cheng, whom I’m yet to read, says on the back cover that the family has “all the dysfunction of an Anne Tyler novel, but with a distinctly Australian feel.” Having read and loved Tyler’s novels (before my blogging days), I’d say this is a good call. Steed, like Tyler, deals with a very particular family – its idiosyncrasies, and shifting individual relationships – while also speaking to universals like love and loyalty, betrayal and breakdown, closeness and distance.

Now, back to the time span. The book is organised b chronological parts: 1972-1984; 1985-1995; 1996-1999; 2000-2002; and, 2015. To cover this ground it is, necessarily, episodic*. Each part comprises short, evocatively titled chapters, which contain scenes from a life, switching the point-of-view between the five main characters. These time-shifts (which aren’t all clearly signposted within the parts) and changing perspectives demand a level of concentration from us readers, but I didn’t find they slowed me down significantly. On the contrary, they kept me engaged and focused on the matter at hand – that is, on whose story I was reading now, what was happening to them and why.

A hairline crack. Small, but spreading.

So, the early parts of the book focus on Jen and Steven’s relationship, their falling in love and the subsequent stresses – three children in quick succession for Jen, and failure at work for Steven – which drive a wedge between them. Steed’s writing is evocative and tight – it has to be really – and I enjoyed it immensely. Take this description of Steven’s commute to his job at the airport:

Steven had lost track of time. Moments, hours, left scattered along the Great Eastern Highway while driving to and from work. Seconds entered in the till by an underpaid, overworked cashier. A day maybe two, left hanging in the change room at the airport. (Before a fall)

Or this of Jen, in the bedroom with Steven, after we discover she’s been having an affair:

She stared past him at the wall, beneath the windowsill. She’d seen it before, maybe weeks, months earlier. A hairline crack. Small, but spreading. (Wallpaper)

The staccato rhythm here is perfect. And Jen’s sadness is palpable.

As the novel progresses, the children grow up and we shift to their lives, with Jen and Steven receding somewhat from the narrative focus. Each child struggles in his or her own way to navigate the family and their place in the world. We are frequently devastated for them, while also applauding their will to survive. There are some lovely vignettes, such as a cricket innings played by Alex and his friend Walker. The whole is underpinned by pop-culture references to music and video games that were only vaguely familiar to me as a baby-boomer parent of late Gen-X early Gen-Y children. Knowing these better might have added to my appreciation of the novel, but I didn’t feel my lack greatly. That is, the novel seemed to work well for me anyhow.

The jerky, episodic structure may have grown out of the original short story concept, and for some it could result in frustration at not “knowing” the characters as fully as they’d like. But I thought it effectively mirrored both the family’s fractured relationships and the way they stick together despite it all. Over time, allegiances switch as particular stresses develop for one person or another, but the love between them, while it falters at times, comes through.

But then, Alex couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. He felt sad and sorry for his sister, his brother, and the fraught, familiar way that the family closed ranks when one began to sink. It felt tender if he touched upon it, like he’d picked up a peach and felt the bruise. (Skin I’m in)

Lest this sound a bit corny, let me say that this is a serious book. The impact on the children of their parents’ separation is unflinchingly exposed, particularly through mental health issues and the difficulties they face in forming long-lasting relationships. It isn’t a pretty picture, but the end, without giving too much away, suggests that with love, perseverance and loyalty, families can and do muddle through.

And so, a book that I thought at the beginning was just another novel about a dysfunctional family surprised me with its insights, warmth, relevance to us all, and above all, its writing pizzazz. Well-worth reading.

* WA writer-blogger Nathan Hobby’s review tells me that the book started as a short story collection, which makes sense. Lisa (ANZLitlovers) featured Laurie Steed in her occasional series on Debut authors.

Laurie Steed
You belong here
Margaret River Press, 2018
250pp.
ISBN: 9780648203902

(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2018 3:01 am

    This sounds good – taking a familiar genre somewhere interesting. I like when the structure of a book feeds back into the story.

    • September 9, 2018 9:26 am

      Yes, I love that too Cathy – re the structure, in particular. I love thinking about structure when I read a book. Sounds a bit nerdy I suppose!

  2. September 9, 2018 7:52 am

    Great review. The book sounds very good. Stories about dysfunctional families are indeed popular. They always have been. As this book illustrates, when in the hands of a good is author they still can fascinate.

    • September 9, 2018 9:28 am

      That’s it Brian – and I had to resist resorting to that Tolstoy quote about happy and unhappy families. It kept bubbling up and I kept squashing it down!

  3. September 9, 2018 9:37 am

    As a WA baby boomer grandfather with Gen X children and grandchildren up to 15 years old, not to mention ‘fractures’ all through, I could take this book personally. Especially as from the front and side windows of my apartment I look out over the locales mentioned in Nathan’s review – Mt Lawley and Perth Airport. I gather that the author is Gen X – which explains the unfamiliar pop references – so I’m interested that you accepted his depiction of the boomer parents. They so often get it wrong!

    • September 9, 2018 9:53 am

      Haha, Bill. I reckon a lot of people could read this personally one way or another. Interesting comment about my accepting his depiction of the boomer parents. We don’t, in a way, see as much of them as we do of the children, which was perhaps Steed’s strategy given his own generation, but they certainly made sense.

      (BTW, every time I write haha now I think of you!!)

  4. September 9, 2018 10:08 am

    LOL Bill, it’s weird to find ourselves in fiction gasping, hang on, it wasn’t quite like that!!

    • September 9, 2018 10:50 am

      Haha, Lisa – but then I often think, “Oh well, I was a bit weird. Maybe it was like that for others!”

  5. Glen Hunting permalink
    September 9, 2018 11:48 am

    I’ve read this, and I can confirm that it’s well worth it. Mr Steed and I are both Gen X children of Boomer parents, so his pop culture references all made sense to me. Although I looked at some of the song titles and thought either, “I’ve must have missed something with this,” or “thank GOD I missed something with this!!!” But I think that was at least part of his intention. The book launch was supposed to include fairy bread. ‘Nuff said!!!

    • September 9, 2018 1:43 pm

      Thanks Glen. It’s lovely seeing the Western Australians commenting. I guess that’s the same with all generations. There are songs etc from mine that I don’t recollect either. Fairy bread! That’s great.

      • Glen Hunting permalink
        September 9, 2018 2:29 pm

        Well, fairy bread was definitely touted in the pre-launch advertising, but I don’t specifically remember seeing any there. Perhaps my mind has erased it as a psychological defence mechanism! 🙂

        • September 9, 2018 4:45 pm

          Maybe all the boomer parents ate it first!! You know boomers and opportunities for free food!! Haha.

        • Glen Hunting permalink
          September 9, 2018 4:54 pm

          Quite possibly. I was never a sweet tooth, anyway, so in the era we’re talking about I was always the weird kid who wouldn’t eat any of the cakes and sweets at birthday parties.

        • September 9, 2018 5:04 pm

          I’m a bit like that – though I have my guilt sweet pleasures. But, I do love savoury dishes, and as a kid like the cupcakes before the icing was added.

  6. buriedinprint permalink
    September 11, 2018 5:41 am

    The style does seem to effectively capture the feel of the scenario, and perhaps it also engages some readers – for all that it’s succinct and matter- even if some might be put off by the distance felt from the characters.

    • September 11, 2018 8:40 am

      Thanks Buried. Yes, I liked the style, though it was very different from the intensity of Austerlitz!

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