Karen Viggers – Sidelines

Allen & Unwin Australia, 2024
Cover design Luke Causby/Blue Cork
Cover images Thomas Barwick/Getty Images;/Alamy; Luke Causby

In essence, Sidelines, Karen Viggers’ latest book, is about how hard it is to be a teenager in the 2020s, and indeed how hard it is to be the parent of one. However, I am reminded in reading this novel of the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Barbie spoke to Karen Viggers about Sidelines

In this tale we are introduced to four unhappy nuclear families, the bigger unhappy family of the soccer (as we call it in Australia) teams and by extension the even more diffuse big unhappy family of national and world football. Indeed, it is the beautiful game that is the common thread just waiting to unwind.

The central characters are Audrey and her family, butting heads with Katerina and hers. Audrey’s father and uncle also enjoy a fractious and competitive relationship and this spills over into both families. Uncle Darren and his wife Claire are fraying at the edges too due to the soccer obsession.

Audrey and her brother Alex play on the same soccer team, led by the mostly overwrought and intense coach Dominik. Because Audrey is not as pushy as some of the others she is regularly overlooked despite her superior skills.

She suffers from a severe lack of confidence, reinforced by the treatment meted out. Dad Ben pushes and pushes, thinking he is being supportive whilst in reality he is sapping the life out of her (and his wife Jonica).

Already I have painted a grim picture of this book and it does indeed move into dark places. However, its very suburban grind is what will connect it to readers – the scene is familiar to so many households today, that constant round of school and after school activities that carries away all the hours of the day. The passions may vary but the relentless nature of family life in the 21st century is clearly and skilfully enunciated in this work.

It is when the passion changes to something more sinister that trouble ensues, as it does in this story. There is so much at stake here for the parents living vicariously through their children. Status and dream fulfilment blur and winning and achievement become everything. That this blinds the adherent to his or her own frailties and to the feelings of everyone else is the ultimate result which  leads to the inevitable catastrophe that is the climax of this story.

Ironically in the four families modelled on the page, it is the least well to do and socially acceptable parent who does the least harm and, in the end, shows the most sensitivity to his child. While the middle classes obsess over image and symbols of success, Griffin’s father drops him off and leaves him to it, sure of his son’s talent and potential, willing to put him in the sightlines of selectors but not to brawl with others for the spotlight.

The author’s observation of adolescence is insightful and compassionate. Her portrayal of parenthood is unjudgmental; even the mind-boggling lack of self awareness of some characters is tempered by a tolerant understanding of well-meaning. Who amongst us as a parent has not fought tooth and nail in some way for our children? And rightly so. It’s the territory.

With a deftly handled plot and pace, this novel is a read for our times. It suggests rather than dictates the major concerns of our age without presuming easy solutions. In the end, it is kindness and gentleness that deliver salvation for more than one of the fictional protagonists and this also holds true for real life.

Perhaps one of the marks of a good contemporary novel is its capacity to tap into our fears and failings without stealing our hope. Karen Viggers succeeds admirably in this.

Thank you to Allen & Unwinfor my review copy and to Karen for a stimulating conversation about the issues raised in this book.