TEXT review

No fun on the dance floor

review by Jeremy Fisher OAM


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Paul Mitchell
We. Are. Family.
MidnightSun, Adelaide SA 2016
ISBN 9781925227109
Pb 276pp AUD24.99


We. Are. Family. The punctuation immediately calls to mind the Sister Sledge hit of 1979. Those full stops syncopate the disco rhythm. The song, composed by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, features the lyrics:

no we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong
This is our family Jewel

I could not help wondering whether Paul Mitchell used the words for his title as an ironic reference to the disco song, because his family gets well and truly depressed and no member of it has any faith in any other member. Other music is mentioned, but it tends to be more heavy metal than disco, so perhaps there is no irony intended and there is very little display of it in this unrelenting tale of boys and their bad ways.

This is a book my mother wouldn’t have liked; she preferred the books she read to tell ‘nice’ stories, which is why she was not partial to my writing. Mitchell’s story is far from nice and, whether because I am nearly sixty-three or because I now live in constant pain, I found myself subscribing to my mother’s point of view. I am ashamed to admit it, but I would not have finished reading this book had I not committed to reviewing it for TEXT.

That said, it is well-written, full of observational detail and in places quite poignant. This grim, bleak book covers three generations of the Stevensons, particularly examining the males of the family, though aunt Sheree, mother Jules and Simon’s wife Fiona are memorable characters. Mitchell details the family’s rather unfulfilled lives from the 1960s to the present. He paints an unflattering portrait of the family. There were many times I did not want to persevere with reading, as doom followed gloom, but I persisted and was rewarded with more discomfort but also, finally, a resolution of sorts. However, throughout I despaired that there were almost no lasting relationships, that children appeared unwanted and unloved, that casual violence was more common than conversation. This is not a world I know, or understand, nor a world I want to know and understand. I accept that may be me piking out, that there are cruel and inhumane people who mistreat others, but as an old man in pain I don’t want to read about them. Apologies, Paul Mitchell; it’s not your fault your book met this grumpy old man on a bad day.

We. Are. Family may be hard going, but it demonstrates its author’s dedication to the creative process. Possibly its uncompromising emphasis on masculine viewpoints and sensibilities is not palatable to many readers, myself included, in today’s commercial publishing marketplace where feminine storylines, authors and readers dominate (despite being overlooked for literary prizes). Yet Mitchell has persisted with his storytelling over many years, developing the episodes and characters that make up his novel. The fact that sections of this book have appeared in literary journals and short story collections, as revealed in the acknowledgements (275), is testament to the fact that his writing is appreciated and valued, as it should be.

There is great variety here. Scenes of gritty urban homelessness build upon scenes of crocodile spotting on the Daintree River; tense domesticity is followed by a pub fight. Tension inexorably rises as Mitchell leads us to the revelation at the heart of this book, the family secret gnawing generations of Stevensons into unhappiness. Mitchell makes it very clear that Ron Stevenson was a tough father and husband and draws out the pain he inflicted on his sons Peter, Simon and Terry so that it is front and centre as the book reaches its conclusion. That it doesn’t seem that significant is hidden in the complexity of the relationships between children and parents. We also discover that Ron and his sister Sheree, as children, witnessed their own violent father murder their mother. The relationship between the boys, now men Peter, Simon and Terry, fortunately strengthens and improves to provide some light at the end of this tale.

This is no waltz nor does the book permit the reader to get down and boogie. The flashing lights come from being thumped in the head rather than from disco balls but We. Are. Family. is a solid contribution to Australian masculine narratives.

While the writing is admirably concise and evocative, there is some unevenness in the narrative voice. Some details such as the death of Trevor Randall’s son are repeated (241) unnecessarily. Generally the narrator is third person and tense is past. However while told through a third person, the section ‘Peter and Ron Stevenson’ (64-79) is present tense, and it is unclear why the tense change was thought needed. Perhaps that is because the book was written over an extended period, which allowed the author the freedom to develop its cyclic, or perhaps cyclonic, structure.

The cover, black, white and red, features an effective graphic of a hibiscus flower spraying blood; it’s a neat concept from designer Kim Lock inspired by a description of paintings by Fiona, estranged wife of Simon Stevenson. Peter Stevenson, an artist, tells his mother Jules: ‘The red hibiscus means a woman’s ready to be married’ (152) but that does not shed any light on Fiona’s paintings, nor explain the meaning behind the cover, which is nonetheless striking.

Overall the book has been treated with respect by the publisher MidnightSun, an Adelaide small press valiantly flying the flag for local literature, though there are occasional editorial glitches: anomalous American spellings occur, ‘lightsabers’ (73), ‘skepticism’ (78), ‘organized’ (265) and ‘behavior’ (270); and an apostrophe creeps into ‘Arnie’s’ (141) when ‘Arnies’ was meant.


Jeremy Fisher OAM teaches writing at the University of New England, Armidale. He received a Medal in the Order of Australia in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday awards for services to literature, education and professional organisations.


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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews editor: Linda Weste