Book review: The Family Law

by Scott G Gibson

Benjamin Law
The Family Law
Black Inc, 2010

Benjamin Law The Family Law

Benjamin Law’s hilarious book The Family Law, published in 2010, is the perfect read for any time of the day. I found this gem of a memoir a quick and enjoyable tale. Law weaves a punchy narrative about his time growing up on the Sunshine Coast with his seemingly eccentric relatives, welcoming you as the newest member of the family.

From the very first page Law hooked me in with his Family Dictionary and his recount of his Poh-Poh’s (grandmother’s) death, travelling to Hong Kong with his mother and younger sisters. Morbid jokes drip from each page; like a stand-up comedy script, Law builds up the tension before giving the punchline. With so many laugh-out-loud moments, you may want to rethink reading it in public. The jokes are often crude and vulgar, yet utterly endearing.

The chapters jump around to various moments in Law’s life, but just like our own memories, the timeline isn’t always important. What we love most about our own memories are the feelings we get from our connections with our loved ones, not the order in which they happened. And that is exactly what Benjamin Law manages to do. We are drawn into his memories with the same love, frustration and heartache as he felt.

Because I wasn’t at the stage where I could discern what was cool or not, I tentatively asked my best friend James about Mariah Carey’s album, and whether he loved it as much as I did.
— Benjamin Law, in The Family Law

I identified myself in Law’s moments that we all experience in our lives, having grown up with similar family vibes. From sharing a bedroom with stinky siblings, living with crippling personal insecurities and overly embarrassing families, Law experienced it all.

Even family holidays were filled with humorous disasters: “But then the emu spotted my paper bag, still full of feed and reserved for the deer around the bend. It made a terrible, ungodly noise – an almost carnivorous, honking screech of excitement, not unlike the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.”

The Family Law also describes the love/hate relationships we have with our family homes, where we feel comfortable, safe and secure in a house that is seemingly falling to bits. No matter how much it might be rundown, we still feel an overwhelming attachment to the building when we are actually connected to the people inside, even if the family unit is breaking down. “It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I got my own room. Andrew left home and started living with Dad, one side effect of our parents’ divorce that I actually appreciated.”

Law’s parents divorced when he was a child, caused by his father’s compulsion to work at his business. “My father doesn’t believe in holidays. It’s difficult to recall a time when the guy didn’t work a fourteen-hour shift each day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.”.

The memoir highlights the hardships of growing up in two minority groups: Asian and homosexual. Law describes the vibe of 1990s Sunshine Coast in the era of Pauline Hanson’s political peak of popularity. He recounts the feelings of having hate-filled comments thrown his way as he moved about, a completely innocent child at the receiving end of vile racism.

“More than once, family friends of ours were found bruised and bashed, after late-night encounters with violent men in petrol stations. Passing drivers would occasionally scream at us as we climbed into the van in our school uniforms in the morning, or as we crossed the road to get groceries in the afternoon… Sometimes they threw stuff at us: apple cores, beer cans and burger wrappers.”

What kind of a person screams at a child in knee-high socks, holding a clarinet case? What had we ever done to them?
— Benjamin Law, in The Family Law

He quickly relieves the tension with his own brand of humour, using his satirical wit to highlight how far we have come as a country, not just with racism, but also with our treatment of the LGBTIQ community. Law describes the struggle of coming out to his friends and family - filled with self-doubt - and questioning his sexuality. Hopefully children growing up in our modern accepting society won’t experience the same shame Law describes in his memoir.

Law adapted his recollections into the television series of the same name, which aired on SBS. The two-season series puts the key events onto the small screen, with a talented cast of actors.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted, easy read, then The Family Law is for you. I came across this memoir in a time when I was utterly exhausted and was struggling through my current read. The Family Law refuelled my reading fire and brought some light into this dark thing we call life.

Definitely give it a try; you won’t be disappointed.

5 Stars.