What The Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam

A review by Nalini Haynes

Giordana is upset and angry: she was given a few minutes to pack her bags because her parents were breaking up, followed by a 3-hour car trip to stay with extended family for a few weeks.

Cousin Alek is a bit of a space cadet: he comes across like a primary school kid yet he’s a teenager. Alek asks Giordana what superpower she’d like. She chooses invisibility while her brother Ben chooses flying.

Then Giordana turns invisible. She spies on the adults then on her brother having sex. She opts for a single life, studying ruined cities.

Natasha, Alek’s mum, gets super strength and takes to swimming at superhuman speeds. She’s running — or swimming — away from family problems including her concerns about Alek who seems to have a mental illness.

Each of the family members gains a superpower over the course of decades. Each is quiet about it — even Ben’s flying around the city isn’t reported in the media. Their super powers change them and their relationships.

Lastly we see Alek’s perspective, his life in summary in one chapter while he exercises his super power. It seems Alek has schizophrenia, giving focus to family problems while also calling into question much of what happens throughout the story. I am not a fan of the ‘this might not have happened’ trope.

What The Family Needed is a melancholic super power story that explores family dynamics and interconnected relationships. Overall it’s interesting, more real than most superhero stories I’ve come across and yet the maudlin tone is unexpected. The conclusion — what the family needs exposed — is not unusual although they took a roundabout route to find it. As someone whose extended family is, if anything, more fractured and poisoned by secrets, I found What The Family Needed intelligent but depressing.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
ISBN: 9781742702117
Format: ebook
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books (Australia); Penguin (USA)

What the family needed — a yellow lightning bolt bisects a red cover