Mirror Askew: Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

June 3, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 2 3 min read

Don’t read this book in bed unless you want to stay up past your bedtime thrilled by the discovery of a new writer.  The collection of linked stories lasted me a week only because I loved the writing so much that I forced myself to close the book after each story and savor the experience of being enveloped by one of Steven Amsterdam’s thorough realms.

The book begins mildly, describing New Year’s Eve through a boy’s eyes as his father panics about Y2K.  On the verge of adolescence, the narrator draws the reader into the tensions of his teetering personal world, and the world that teeters beyond.  He hits all the right notes of ambivalence and alignment as he carries the reader through his struggle to stay with his mother and grandparents, who believe nothing will change at midnight, or be with his father, who is sure everything will.

I thought the rest of the stories would be similarly realistic, peppered with landmark events I might recognize from the last decade.  If I had paid attention to the title or the jacket flap, I might have had a clue, but I am happy to have been caught in a surprise.

coverThings We Didn’t See Coming follows the growing boy through an unraveled world.  The uncertain social terrain of an ever-revising dystopia is revealed, and we get an intimate view of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and loyalties as he matures.  The details of this place – necessary pills, strict division of rural and urban resources and spaces – and the just-beyond-now feeling of the scenarios are intriguing.  In one story, the boy and his grandparents escape the city.  In the next, he is older and on his own, clearing people out of suburban and vacation homes to make way for grazing livestock.

The stories are compelling in terms of content, but the strong writing pulled my interest far beyond the subject’s what-if appeal.  The entire collection, which was marketed as a novel in Australia, is told in the first person, present tense.  While this is risky in terms of holding a reader too close for too long, the intimacy is off-hand because of the main character’s casual tone, and interrupted by spot-on dialogue. The voice delivers scenes in a conversational patter that is at once deftly easy on the reader and completely engaging.

The author fleshes out environments without overburdening the reader with a museum catalog of elements, as in this stage setting sentence from “Dry Land.”

“Inside, the place is all fake-rustic, patchwork quilts on the walls everywhere, a family of black skillets hanging over the kitchen counter, and the thousand-dollar appliances you can’t use since the grid went down.”

Amsterdam writes paragraphs that are paintings of problems, like this report of a celebrity who is, at the time, the man’s employer.

“Her goal, she says, is to connect the coasts and the north-south borders with great corridors of wild land – farms, forests, suburbs reclaimed by nature.  One day there will be no more cities – their shells will be ghostly interruptions of the new nation, which will be composed of rural communities linked in all directions.”

Things We Didn’t See Coming is full of intensely imagined moments that smack of the human real.  In a story called “The Profit Motive,” the narrator is tested to see if he is fit to join a provisional government set to correct the mayhem that has reined.  We experience the sweaty discomfort of a situation where emotions matter only to the broader goal of survival.  We learn that he is “too old for theft,” and in this well-tossed phrase, glimpse with him back at his life.

The final story stitches the beginning to the end as the narrator visits his father.  “The Best Medicine” describes a potential future while pointing a finger at problems that are happening right now.

The tradition of exploring and reveling in the idiosyncrasies of human behavior in otherworldly realms is long.  This narrative habit works because the storyteller holds the mirror slightly askew, and we get to see all of our parts, good and bad.

Amsterdam is an American who lives in Australia, and perhaps this displacement allows him a sweeping perspective on the whole business of being a person at the beginning of the 21st century.  The truths he shows in this mirror appealed wildly to Australian audiences last year, when a new small press first published it.  Things We Didn’t See Coming has been through multiple printings there, and won big literary awards on that continent.  Its recent release, here, in February, is echoing the acclaim.  I hope the book snowballs through his homeland and inspires him to create another stunning read.

lives on six city lots in upstate New York with her husband and sons. She writes for regional and national outlets about the changing food landscape, and records dispatches from her family’s gardening, cooking and chicken raising enterprises on her blog, amyhalloran.com. Along with photojournalist Ellie Markovitch, she launched Storycooking.com, a home for food-based digital storytelling.


  1. Thanks for this review. I do, in fact, want to stay up past my bedtime thrilled by the disovery of a new writer. It’s one of the best reasons to lose sleep!

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