I’m listening to PJ Harvey, having spent the morning devouring the second half of Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here. It lead me to remember how close I once felt to PJ, how much Dry and To Bring You My Love meant to me. Now I’m unsure where the discs are—on a spindle somewhere, I think. They’re burnt discs, and they were ripped for me in Glen Waverly by my friend Karl (his tall and sloping handwriting on the front of the disc). Karl’s dad had become animated telling me how much he believed I’d find something resonant in PJ. And I did. I still do.
When I listen now, my body still somehow anticipates the little aching hiccups she does at the end of a verse or track, the audible inhalations, the yelps. I remember the house in Glen Waverley with its overgrown yard, and the boys who lived in the house. I remember the walk across the oval from the station, and making tacos together, and tacking blankets to the walls to sound-proof a band rehearsal room… I remember the comfort that PJ brought me in later sharehouses, and in bleak moods… All these things are attached to her sound. From one track unfolds a world.
Musical memories are some of the strongest ones, and this idea is what pulls together Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here (released March 2018 from Margaret River Press), whose cover features an artfully destructed cassette tape. This debut novel follows the Slater family across three generations, in only 247 pages. We first meet Jen and Steven in 1972, and follow their love affair and the beginnings of their family. Three children later, Jen and Steven struggle to remain connected. After Steven leaves the family, the reverberations of his decision are felt long into the future, impacting not only his children (Alex, Emily and Jay), but their children too. The book closes on the family in 2015.
Nostalgia plays a big part in these stories, and readers are rewarded for their era-specific knowledge not only of music but of cultural touchstones like Street Fighter II.
The chapters at first seem ambitious, skipping forwards and planting the sweet beginnings of family life. By the time things go sour for the Slaters, a slipstream of inevitability has tied everyone together—and as a reader, I was invested in the family’s happiness by this point. The love between Jen and Steven seems unstoppable, their move to Perth necessary. When Dad (Steven) leaves, Jay watches on: ‘In the end, it was okay without Dad around. They wouldn’t have chosen it had they been given the choice of three doors, but they’d only been given the one, and when you were only given one door there’s not much else to do but go through’. Fate and choice may be an illusion, but the really sticky and interesting bits—the stuff that makes characters interesting—is how they respond to forced and unchosen situations, and whether they subscribe to familial patterns or push back.
The highly enjoyable musical elements in You Belong Here begin with Just Hits ‘85 – a cassette the family enjoys together. Throughout the book, characters meditate on the music that matters to them, through extended critiques that fit beautifully into the context of the stories. Alex gives a full-page critique of Faith No More’s Angel Dust; Emily an even longer reflection on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. When big-hearted and compassionate ‘Baby Jay’ gets his opportunity to think over music, he does so only as a reaction to his siblings’ tastes. ‘You’re joking about this album, aren’t you?’ he asks of Alex’s obsession with Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. You Belong Here underscores the reasons that music can affect us so deeply, and how we hold it close, until it becomes a container for moments within our lives.
Steed’s background as a short story writer allows him to artfully capture the arc of a number of lives through well-placed episodes which centre the experiences of different family members. The novel’s precise language hints rather than prescribes, creating moments that gesture beyond their frame—expanding in much the same way that musical memories inflate.
Steed has compressed an incredible story between these two covers.