Laurie Steed, You belong here (#BookReview)

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 by 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)