Review: The Family Law by Benjamin Law
The Family Law
Author: Benjamin Law
Published by: Black Inc
The Australian media industry being what it is, I imagine that many people reviewing Benjamin Law’s memoir are personally acquainted with Ben, or know him through Facebook and Twitter.
I’m no exception; I met him at a ginger-beer-soaked This Is Not Art festival in Newcastle in 2005. In person he is likeable and funny, and I’ve found his freelance writing to be lucid and engaging. (He writes for Frankie, where he is a senior contributor, The Monthly, The Big Issue, the Courier-Mail and more.) But I do not wish to blow smoke up his arse in this review.
The Family Law is a strong debut, but it’s not perfect. It’s well written and amusing, but it is not as explosively hilarious as some reviews are suggesting; I rarely laughed out loud (although I did at the vision of Law in pointed suede shoes that made him resemble an elf). Also, some of the anecdotes veer into a heavy-handed sentimentality that jars with the otherwise irreverent tone and appears calculated to offer a bittersweet insight.
Anyone writing self-deprecating, humorous essays about growing up gay in a provincial town, about an oddball family and a boyfriend with saintly patience, is going to suffer by comparison with David Sedaris. The Family Law will definitely appeal to fans of Sedaris’s style, but it’s a shame that Law is being hailed as “the new David Sedaris”, “the new Australian David Sedaris” or “The new Asian-Australian David Sedaris” rather than, y’know, “a fresh, original voice quite unlike anyone you’ve read”.
This is a distinctively Australian book, and Law’s is a kind of Australian childhood that hasn’t yet been extensively chronicled. Hugh Lunn, John Birmingham and Nick Earls have all had their go at writing about being young in the Sunshine (aka “Smart”) State; now it’s Law’s turn to visit the “poor-cousiny, half-arsed and afterthoughtish” theme parks of the Sunshine Coast and relive the miseries of Queensland summers.
Being as white as a loaf of Tip-Top, I enjoyed being introduced to Asian diasporic culture through Law’s impertinent skewering. But many of his other anecdotes instantly took me back to my own dorky, pretentious childhood. I sympathised deeply with Law’s visceral terror of Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s IT. I recall how body piercing made many mainstream teenagers consider themselves extremely edgy. And I, too, owned a Sony Walkman with megabass function, had a brother who aurally assaulted the family with Nirvana’s In Utero, and surreptitiously listened to Dr Feelgood’s late-night sexual health radio show.
Though The Family Law has a roughly chronological format, the essays are organised by theme and Law tends to revisit similar aspects of his family life from different angles. Much of the humour depends on familiarity with the vagaries of the Law family; later essays are much funnier and more confident, and the earlier ones improve on re-reading. ‘Towards Manhood’, Law’s self-excoriating meditation on masculinity about halfway through the book, is probably the highlight, although ‘God Camp’ and ‘The Pretenders’ were also great.
The book’s other treat is its wonderfully shameless characterisation of Law’s mother. As described by her son, Jenny is the archetypal embarrassing mum. She treats her kids to graphic descriptions of their births and sends them birthday text messages littered with ÖÖÖÖÖÖs to represent women screaming with labour pains. And she loves to SKI – “spending the kids’ inheritance”.
Despite its copious swearing, unflattering descriptions and recollections of vicious fighting, The Family Law is a deeply affectionate portrait. Simultaneously weird and instantly recognisable, the Laws are an Australian family it’s well worth getting to know.
- Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Brad Pitt plays a man who ages backwards in a...
- Plausible Family Casting: Tina, Mariska, Winona In the latest instalment of our fantasy casting column, three...
- Plausible Family Casting: Ron and Will Sure, Will Ferrell had a step-brother in John C Reilly…...
- Family Group Irate Over Shit Shatner Says Bill Shatner signs up to CBS's sitcom adaptation of the...