We. Are. Family.
by Paul Mitchell
Rating: 4 / 5
Back in 2015, TIME Magazine ran with the headline: ‘What Does It Mean to “Be a Man”?’
‘“Man up.” “Don’t be a sissy.” “Don’t cry.” “Talk like a man.” “Act like a man.” “Be a man,”’ Maria Shriver and Jennifer Siebel Newsom wrote. ‘Millions of boys hear these words, these phrases, these commands, almost every day of their lives. They absorb the words and then spend a lifetime dealing with their effects.’
This could well be the prologue to Australian writer Paul Mitchell’s debut novel We. Are. Family. which, through a series of vignettes, introduces us to the archetypal patriarchal Aussie family, the Stevensons—grandfather Bernie, his son Ron, grandsons Peter, Terry and Simon, and uncles Nick and Tim (the extended family also make an appearance).
These are men caught at the juncture of something; exactly what that might be is determined by their close relationships and how they either fit or don’t fit into them. And so a marriage breakdown is juxtaposed with a new romance, siblings fall out and then reach out to each other, and children rally against their parents while secretly yearning for approval.
It’s significant that the dominant voices in this book are male. While the feminists among us may bristle at this, it soon becomes clear that Mitchell is laying down the groundwork for an open dialogue between the sexes.
It’s only from their perspective that we can glean just how much of crisis his characters are in. There’s no sugar coating because there’s no need to sugar coat a stream of consciousness. For the reader, it’s like being a fly on the wall at a counselling session.
What we get is honesty akin to a flaying. Stripped bare, Mitchell’s blokey characters must accept failure, longing and regret; a terrible admission, sure, but also a necessary one.
And while the mothers, wives and sisters all suffer because of the actions—or inactions—of their men, their survival instinct remains somehow more intact. (Except, perhaps, for Ron’s poor institutionalised sister Sheree.)
Mitchell’s heart as a poet beats in every line of this novel. From the prosaic—‘In the late summer air’s quiet he told everyone to prepare for another move. A regional train rushed past and lit them up for a moment’—to the sublime—‘She didn’t look [angry]. Her sad eyes were like planets wondering where the sun had gone’—Mitchell’s writing is point perfect.
Yes, you can call We. Are. Family a rumination on despair, but it’s so much more than that, too. As a Christian, Mitchell knows that to be a truly functioning human being we must learn to live with the darkness.
While much has been made of the novel taking cues from celebrated Australian writer Tim Winton, Mitchell’s sensibility seems more reminiscent of the late US writer Flannery O’Connor, a staunch Catholic whose humanity shone through her stark and fiercely unsanitised stories.
In this gratifyingly robust novel on modern manhood we need dig only a little deeper to find an unflinching vision of Christianity—unpacked, unlocked and right under our noses.
Highlight: the writing
Red flags: adult themes, coarse language