The sub­ur­bia of our dis­con­tent

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

You Be­long Here (Mar­garet River Press, 256pp, $24.99) is the de­but novel by Perth-based writer and ed­i­tor Lau­rie Steed. A novel of episodes span­ning 1972 to 2015, it’s about Steven and Jen and their chil­dren, Alex, Emily and Jay.

Jen and Steven are teenagers when they meet and fall in love in 1972. By the time they are mar­ried — “Noth­ing fancy, just fam­ily and friends at the lo­cal church” — Steven has com­pleted a diploma of avi­a­tion and has been work­ing as an air traf­fic con­troller at Tul­la­ma­rine air­port for a cou­ple of years.

Every­thing is set for sub­ur­ban com­fort in Mel­bourne when Steven re­ceives a job offer in Perth. The cou­ple fly busi­ness class and are duchessed in the Sher­a­ton Ho­tel. Steven ac­cepts the job and when Alex, their first child, is born, they are en­sconced in Mount Law­ley.

Jen feels iso­lated, yet tries to put a pos­i­tive spin on it. Perth is “a place un­bur­dened by emo­tional bag­gage. A town play­ing grown-ups, with a river that split the cen­tre like a gi­ant sink­hole, only pretty”.

By the time their third child, Jay, is born, some of the early op­ti­mism of their mar­riage has eroded. Steven makes a crit­i­cal er­ror at work, and not for the first time. Un­be­known to Jen, a sim­i­lar mis­take at Tul­la­ma­rine is why they had to move to Perth. This time, Steven’s stub­born­ness in the face of the un­de­ni­able costs him his career. There’s enough money to pay off the house but not to live in com­fort, and the fam­ily be­gins to fray at the edges.

This part of the story is han­dled beau­ti­fully. Steed has the right touch, is poignant with­out be­com­ing cloy­ing. It’s a sen­si­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion of how chil­dren can be dam­aged by a fam­ily break-up, and also of the sac­ri­fices many peo­ple (mostly women) make in terms of their own lives to raise chil­dren with­out the fi­nan­cial and emo­tional sup­port of other adults.

The lat­ter part of the novel fol­lows the chil­dren into early adult­hood. It doesn’t work quite as well. Partly it’s a struc­tural is­sue: each char­ac­ter’s tra­jec­tory is dif­fer­ent and it doesn’t al­ways gel. It may have been bet­ter to con­cen­trate on a sin­gle char­ac­ter. While the fam­ily’s frac­ture vin­di­cates the struc­ture, this frac­tur­ing doesn’t carry over into great sto­ry­telling.

There’s also a prob­lem of sen­si­bil­ity. Steed is in­tent on showing the dam­age caused to this

Sally Hep­worth takes her read­ers into the wealthy sub­urbs of Mel­bourne

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