Anyone who has followed Australian writer Benjamin Law over the last few years, particularly in his role as a senior columnist for Frankie Magazine, would invariably have reached the same conclusion I did: It’s only a matter of time before this guy gets a book deal.
What do you know? That’s exactly what happened.
The result is The Family Law, a brilliant collection of essays exploring life as part of the irresistible Law family.
Law is described as ‘a born humorist’ and likened to David Sedaris. Sedaris, the American literary darling, has delivered some of the most effortlessly funny and honest work in recent years. But Law proves from the very first piece that he is capable of producing equal amounts of humour and pathos with the greatest skill, and like Sedaris, he makes it look easy.
The third of five children, he quickly and entertainingly fleshes out the various member of his family, who share with him starring roles in the book. Every family member stands out, from the tyrant brother to the creative youngest sister. It is his parents however, that are most memorable. His father is an incredibly hard worker who doesn’t know the meaning of a day off, with a family history of his own so incredible that it’s almost, ‘a plot contrivance so unrealistic it would seem manipulative to include it, if it hadn’t actually happened’. Also a standout is the tale of his father dragging his five children to a wildlife park and the resulting incident with one of Australia’s wildlife icons. It’s the highlight of the book: sublimely funny and perfectly written.
Law’s mother Jenny is unspeakably hilarious. She deliberately disappears for days just to see if her children will worry about her; she can nap anywhere, anytime; she recounts the agony of giving birth to each child with relish, including on their birthdays.
Law also describes growing up an Asian kid in the 90s when Pauline Hanson was emerging as something of a political heroine. He recalls how the family got so sick of being verbally abused by the local yokels driving by that they started abusing them right back. His grasp of the notoriously difficult Cantonese language is tenuous, and he likens the speaking of it too ‘the late night sexual moans of the feral cat, the broken wail of the American coyote, or the screeching of the rabies infested bat’.
But what makes The Family Law so outstanding in my mind is that he captures and recounts some of the quintessential elements of Australian childhood. Despite a life that has been very different from my own, I realised that some of his memories mirror mine. Long hot summers spent languishing and whining about the heat, while your parents scold you and tell you to go and build a pergola or do anything useful. The inevitable vermin of cockroaches, spiders and mice featuring heavily in your formative years. Growing up in the suburbs where you spend so many years bickering and abusing your siblings that you later look back and wonder how you survived each other. Being an awkward teen with the heavy knowledge that no one will ever understand you. These universalities of life are weaved in with the wonderful, singular peculiarities of the Law family. With such rich material in the hands of a skilled writer, this book is a delight to read.