BENJAMIN LAW The Family Law. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
Family memoir at its giddy, poignant best – The Family Law captures with incisive wit what it meant to grow up Asian and gay on Queensland’s suburban Sunshine Coast.
Fans of the recent SBS TV series of The Family Law will already be familiar with the idiosyncratic members of the Law family: Benjamin’s workaholic father, his cringe-worthy and inadvertently hilarious mother, his brother and three sisters, and of course Benjamin Law himself – 12-year-old narrator and sage of formidable reckoning. Where the TV series pushes humour, the memoir establishes itself as a brutally honest examination of family, mortality, race, the migrant experience and sexuality, all told with acerbic wit.
Each chapter is a bittersweet vignette connected as a linked series of tales – the episodic style of narrative so well suited to television. Law excels at capturing the vagaries of the migrant tongue, illuminating on the page the bilingual anomalies unique to a Cantonese/English speaking household. He describes having to define the difference between foul play and foreplay to his mother:
… Mum had fallen pregnant with Candy almost immediately after losing her virginity – which, for her, coincided with her wedding night.
‘Not much fun there,’ she said. ‘Not much foul play.’
‘You mean “foreplay”,’ I said.
‘What’s the difference?’
When I explained it to her, she laughed and shrugged.
‘Doesn’t sound very different to me,’ she said …
Law is a skilled linguist, effortlessly depicting the imaginative perspective of the child with the retrospective sensibility of the adult. He captures his mother’s struggles with English with hilarious precision:
… when my mum learns a new word from television or conversation, she writes it down in her notebook. If the word is particularly tricky, she asks me to spell and define it, then scrawls it down onto scrap paper and sticky-tapes it to the wall to help her remember its meaning and spelling, the way foreign-language students do in the lead-up to exams. Even now, the word diarrhoea is stuck to the dining-room wall …
He charts the family’s ability to adapt to the Australian culture and way of life with colourful characters and storytelling. Among the stories are accounts of the businesses that his father ran with varying degrees of success; Chinese restaurants, a Chinese supermarket, property development. When Chinese restaurants lose popularity, his father pragmatically decides to open a Thai restaurant instead:
[Chinese restaurants had] … become a joke – dinky novelty eateries that displayed Christmas lights in April and served food on mismatched melamine plates. Melamine. Even the name suggested something tragic and poisonous, something that might kill you. The Chinese were being pushed out to make way for other ethnicities. In any other context, this would be called ethnic cleansing; in hospitality, it was just called business. So Dad became Thai, just like my uncles in Canada had turned Japanese …
The Law family’s ability to adapt and integrate lies at the heart of the memoir. The young Law’s melodramatic voice richly observes the humdrum realities of the everyday, providing a rare snapshot of Australia:
In my first year of primary school, our class stripped down to our underwear, covered ourselves in black body paint and pretended to be Aborigines. We were all scheduled to appear in the annual talent showcase, and because there weren’t any actual Aboriginal kids in the class, we opted for blackface instead …
As embarrassing as this un-politically correct performance might be, Law narrates with equally innocent enthusiasm his own subjection to urbane ignorance. Keen to pursue an acting career, the young Benjamin meets with a junior talent agent, Faye:
‘Well!’ Faye said, smiling broadly. ‘I’m just so glad you contacted us! It’s so rare to have Orientals in our catalogue. You’re all just so hard to find!’
The social commentary expands further, touching on the inherent racism that drove support for the One Nation party in the mid-1990s. During this time family friends were bashed and Asian vilification given free rein:
… Sometimes they threw stuff at us: apple cores, beer cans and burger wrappers. At first, this new experience was disorientating. What kind of person screams at a child in knee-high socks, holding a clarinet case?
The journey of this child in the knee-high socks as he matures to adulthood is a moving tribute to family and what it means to be Australian.
Benjamin Law The Family Law Black Inc 2016 PB 240pp $19.99
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.