Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What The Family Needed | Steven Amsterdam | What's your superpower?

Given the choice, what superpower would you go for?

It's a whimsical sort of a question. The kind a kid would ask. Super strength? Mind reader? X-ray vision? So when Alek -- a young, thoughtful teen, considered a bit odd, even by those who love him -- asks it of his cousins, they don't take it that seriously.

One opts for invisibility. The other for the ability to fly.

Steven Amsterdam's new novel, What The Family Needed, is charming, light, and yet full of emotion. It keeps you guessing as to whether these special powers are real or imagined.

Each chapter focuses on a different member of an extended family at a different, crucial point in the family history. Giordana, when her mother Ruth leaves her alcoholic husband. Natalie, Ruth's sister, when her son Alek starts having trouble at school. Peter, Natalie's husband, when his wife dies suddenly.

The skips in time, the way the book manages to capture the lives of these characters in the round, using what are really quite brief vignettes, turns out to be extremely powerful. This is quite a short book, you could read it at one sitting, but it allows us to race through their lives, experiencing the characters' flaws and sharing in their joys.

The structure of the book maintains Alek's mystery until the last. Then the "reality"" of what he can do, his magical nature, is revealed. There is a chance that by including this final reveal that the book will end on a down. That the twist doesn't quite live up to the mystery. But Amsterdam's family portrait is ultimately so positive, so loving, it's impossible not to be carried away by it.

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