Review: ‘What the Family Needed’ by Steven Amsterdam

fresh, dreamlike, magical

 Every now and then, a novel arrives that conveys not only wisdom and understanding but also offers a dose of magic.  Part fable, part dreamscape, part family drama, What the Family Needed can be read in different ways.  Some of the delight is that nothing is lost in choosing one way over another; in fact, each reading contains all other possible readings.  I’m being mysterious, I know; but I’m afraid to reveal too much and steal even an ounce of joy this strange and charming book provides.

On the most superficial level, What the Family Needed is the story of a family over a lifetime.  At the centre is the oddball Alek, who exerts an influence over the others even when he isn’t present.  Adorable as a child, Alek is transformed into the complicated teenage rebel and, later, the adult misfit, while the family watches with concern and growing ambivalence.  All is not what it seems, however.  Amsterdam offers a unique explanation for how the whole of a family resides within each of its members.  And while it’s true that difference contains misunderstanding, as well as good will, and all sorts of consequences, each of us possesses special powers that arrive when we need them.

What the Family Needed is the second novel for Amsterdam, a worthy follow up to his debut Things We Didn’t See Coming, which won The Age Book of the Year for 2009.  It’s a remarkable story, full of imagination and fun.  Amsterdam reaches for the delicate web that connects us to each other and suggests a subtle new way of reading our lives.


What the Family Needed         

Steven Amsterdam


November 2011

Review first published in The Courier-Mail in December 2011.

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