We. Are. Family. by Paul Mitchell Midnight Sun Publishing 2016
Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and it seems that unhappiness is passed down from each generation to the next. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote that “the evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations—that history can be ‘embodied’—has steadily mounted” and that “a study at the University of Zurich has shown that stress in a male mouse can alter the RNA in his sperm, causing depression and behavioural changes that persist in his progeny”. Whether such inheritance really is physical, encoded in RNA, or cultural, passed down through the behaviour of one’s parents—or both—there’s certainly truth to the idea that family trauma can be difficult to escape from. In Australia, is toxic masculinity also passed down in a similar way through the inescapable expectations of the culture at large?
In Paul Mitchell’s debut novel We. Are. Family., familial trauma meshes with toxic masculinity to reverberate through multiple generations of the Stevenson family. The non-linear episodic structure of the novel—with a number of these episodes having appeared previously as standalone short stories—allows the novel to cross perspectives and generations as it tells the story of Peter Stevenson, his brothers Simon and Terry, their parents, grandparents and extended family.
The book opens with Ron Stevenson driving his family home, and some disconcerting perspective switches between Ron and his son Peter provide a picture of a working-class family, a troubled marriage, and confusion from Peter about why his Aunt has been put into “some kind of hospital”—a mental institution. Ron is straitjacketed by his masculinity: he observes his children sleeping as he drives and “wanted to reach over and touch them, but that was Julie’s job”. Peter, meanwhile struggles to understand the day’s events and is dealt a line that is all-too-familiar from my own upbringing: “Good boys should be seen and not heard”. And so from here, at the centre of this family tree, the story begins.
Shifting times and perspectives are often signalled through language and cultural references, both of which can feel overdone at times. Aussie lingo can come to sound like a caricature on the page, but it is being rendered realistically, so this complaint seems unfair. References to the zeitgeist—both the X-Files and the Three Colours films within a short passage—are sometimes dropped in purely as signposts, but at other times, such as in a reference to the recession “that goose Keating reckoned they had to have”, we see not just the events of the time but how they’ve impacted the lives of these characters. Among the lingo and sometimes frustratingly short, stilted sentences, there is also room for great humour and Aussie irony, poetic symbolism, and the healing power of art, drawing from Mitchell’s varied background as a published poet, playwright, screenwriter and essayist.
The non-linear structure is an effective device, allowing details to emerge throughout the book, though the chopping and changing of perspectives in short chapters makes for a stop/start beginning that takes some persistence. It’s worth persisting until the depth of each character grows and we’re treated to longer chapters in the book’s midsection, particularly those dealing with Peter, Terry and Simon as adults, and come to see how they’ve all been influenced by their childhood and coped with events in their own ways.
This is a very ‘male’ book in a number of ways, and privileges this perspective without letting the reader forget the lives of the women who are undoubtedly also key to this family saga. Paul Mitchell does well to capture the constraints, the humour, the vernacular and the ideas of family that come with Australian masculinity, while providing a clear-eyed view of the darkness that can result. We. Are. Family. is an unflinching and nuanced portrayal of Australian masculinity, mental illness and domestic violence, one that will resonate in an unsettling way with the upbringings of many Australians.
– Daniel Young
Daniel Young is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal and has had short fiction published in Hello Mr. Magazine, Verity La, Mascara Literary Review, Seizure, The Suburban Review and Antithesis Journal. He is (slowly) reviewing all the novellas at allthenovellas.com and can be found on Twitter @jazir1979.
We. Are. Family. is available at http://midnightsunpublishing.com/shop/books/we-are-family/