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Book extract: We. Are. Family.

Books & Poetry

This debut novel by Australian writer Paul Mitchell explores the pervasive effects of violence on three generations of one family.

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While it highlights the connections between family members, and between past and present, We. Are. Family. also exposes different aspects of Australian masculinity.

“I don’t believe masculinity is problematic,” Mitchell said in a recent interview. “But hyper-masculinity is for sure. And, interestingly, hyper-masculinity – whether that is expressed via physicality, political power, financial power, etc – is usually a result of deep fear within the individual who is expressing it.”

The book is presented in episodic form, with each chapter focusing on different family members. The following extract – republished with the permission of Adelaide publisher MidnightSun Publishing, comes from chapter 15, which centres on Ryan Stevenson.


Ryan moved out of home as soon as he turned eighteen. His plan was to do what the rest of his family couldn’t do. Get it right. What he meant was living. Just going about a day under Westmore’s moody skies. Under them completely, come to think of it: his job was cracking open suburban footpaths to find and fix water pipes. He was happiest when he was down there. There was no one to tell him if he was connecting the PVC 300mm female joint correctly to the male joint. He just did it. Then moved to the next one. A square of light above him and, up there with it, his crew moving from van to hole to lower him tools on a pulley. He got his work done right, every time. He was team leader. He knew stuff. His head was on straight, as straight as those pipes. But when he came up again for air at the end of the day, his stuff ups were right in front of his face. Like losing a girlfriend whose dad was made of money. And telling his old school friends at a reunion that he believed in UFOs and he wouldn’t mind being abducted by aliens.

You’ve got an excuse for stuffing up, his younger sister Alice always reminded him. Your dad left when you were a teenager. Remember?

But it was her dad who left too. Not that she ever seemed to care. She never wanted to see him or know him.

Simon Stevenson pissed off to Queensland. But it hadn’t changed a thing in Ryan’s life. It hadn’t left any holes. It hadn’t turned him into a statistic. It hadn’t forced him to become anything.

Sometimes he wished he lived underground. Like at that opal mine town in the desert. But that was too far from Westmore and his grandma, Jules. He owed her for looking after him so much when his father left. Now it was time to help look after her. And he was doing that one afternoon, helping Jules out by taking a package of hers to the tiny post office on Grey Street, when Ryan met his wife-to-be, Sally.

She was coming out the door and her face was all sideways. Like someone had grabbed her cheek and pulled until it had got stuck. But she was good looking; she had her hair set nicely. It fell in brown waves. Her legs were all bent though, and she pegged along with a walking frame. But she took care of herself.

That’s good, Ryan thought, for no reason that made sense.

Sally kept apologising for being slow getting out the door. Her bum in her jeans was just fine; round and sweet and not at all disabled. Like the prints of Tahitian women his mum had stuck up on her wall.

Ryan held the door open for Sally.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

“It’s all right. I’m in no rush.”

He had nowhere to go, his shift was over. But suits were queuing behind him in that edgy way that suits get; straining their necks because they want to get past, but not wanting to be rude because, you know, the poor woman’s disabled. If they’d pushed through him and Sally it would be admitting what heartless pricks they were for wanting to get on with their oh-so-important days. Making more money in an hour than Ryan probably made in a week.

Westmore had gone to shit.

Sally clomped to the post box. Ryan would have let her disappear but she dropped her letter. The envelope scampered down the street in the wind like a mouse going for a block of cheese. Ryan shot after it. He picked it up and gave it to her. She flicked him a loose-lipped smile and in a drawl like a Texan on downers said, “Hey, thank you.”

“Ah, that’s no worries. Do you want me to put it in the slot for you?”

He didn’t even think how that sounded. But she gave him a smile and didn’t answer. And, whoops, he felt a rush in his groin. What the hell am I doing? he thought. She’s disabled. But then he remembered her bum.

He flipped her letter into the box and asked her out for coffee.

The last thing he would normally ask anybody to do.

They headed slowly to Drew’s on the Corner. He hated that upmarket joint but couldn’t think where else to take her. People looked up from their lattes when they walked in. Sally, all weird looking, and him wearing his orange safety vest.

Suck on your whatevers, Ryan thought. She’s all right.

They found a table near the window. The waitress was wearing a dress like one of Ryan’s grandma’s outfits and she made a fuss of getting them seated.

“Now, what would you like?” Sally asked.

“A beer?”

She laughed.

“I don’t think they sell them.”

“A chocolate milkshake then.”

Ryan found out Sally hadn’t always been smashed to shit. It’d happened in a stack on her ex-boyfriend’s Triumph. She’d come off at more than a hundred ks an hour.

“I’m lucky to be alive.”

Ryan thought she winked but it might have just been her face doing whatever it wanted on its own. She went on about the Epworth Hospital, the buzzers and lights. How people died in wards around her. And how her boyfriend became her ex.

“He didn’t want to even look at me . . .”

Ryan zoned out and played with a sugar packet. He wanted to crack it open and gulp it. His mum, before she’d gone health mad, had always done that when she was nervous and thought no one was looking. Ryan stopped his sugar urge. He caught his reflection in the window; four-day growth and pimple pock marks that had hung around since TAFE. He took off his safety vest. He wouldn’t have minded taking off and replacing his nose, too. It was bent from Lechie Freisa’s fist in Year 11. That was the day Lechie said, “Ryo, your dad fucked off because he didn’t want to look at your head anymore.” Ryan threw a punch, it missed, and Lechie threw a better one.

Ryan asked Sally what she was up to for the rest of the day. She said she didn’t know, maybe some study.

“I’ve hired Alien.”

For the tenth time, could have been eleventh.

Okay, it was getting onto more like fifty. And he hadn’t bought a copy because he liked the look of the rental shop girl and her purple lipstick. Sally looked at Ryan now, like she was a culture vulture who went to the theatre. She probably did. She upped her eyebrows. A massive effort. But then she said, “Yeah, great, let’s go.”

We. Are. Family. By Paul Mitchell, published by MidnightSun Publishing, $24.99

We. Are. Family. By Paul Mitchell, published by MidnightSun Publishing, $24.99



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