The suburbia of our discontent
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