Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg, review by Susan Gusho
It’s no surprise that memoirist and uber-agent Bill Clegg’s first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, has landed on the Man Booker 2015 long list. Reading this novel will mesmerize you, undo you, and finally put you back together bit by bit; it’s a piercing and exquisitely told story, one that ultimately offers hope and forgiveness. It’s all about families, both those you’re born into and those you create.
The novel begins as June Reid drives away from her small Connecticut town in the aftermath of an unfathomable tragedy. A house fire has decimated her family (including her daughter, her daughter’s fiancee, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend) on the eve of her daughter’s wedding. June is bereft of everything — possessions, family, will, personhood. No one is immune to the tragedy’s fallout, and Clegg shows us the best and worst in people as they struggle to make sense of it. From the caterer who forgoes an unpaid bill, to the florist who transforms hundreds of daisies from table centerpieces to funeral arrangements, to the housekeeper at the Pacific coast motel where June ends her journey in a catatonic spell, people emerge, and their human gestures and slowly evolving community allow June to survive. In restrained and yet enormously effective prose, Clegg shows how the smallest things become the only things.
The spellbinding quality of Did You Ever Have a Family lies in the brilliant way Clegg tells this story. Each chapter voices the point of view of one of several alternating characters. There’s Silas, the local pothead teen, who lives nearby June’s house and works for her boyfriend Luke’s landscaping business. And Lydia, the town pariah, ostracized for her bi-racial child (Luke). Even Cissy, the Pacific motel’s housekeeper who observes, “Someone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won’t see coming will need you . . . . And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day.” The weft of these different voices, each contributing a strand to the story of the town and its inhabitants leading up to and out from the unspeakable tragedy, ultimately becomes a tapestry so rich in humanity it will both devastate and uplift readers. “We only learn at the speed of pain,” Clegg remarked in an interview, “and we don’t have others in our lives without forgiveness. That’s why I wanted to occupy so many different narratives, to show the threads, sometimes very fragile threads, that connect one act of forgiveness to another.”
Did You Ever Have a Family marks the inauguration of Scout Press (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster) which is devoted to publishing “ambitious, conversation-starting novelists” who write accessible literary fiction. Though I have no insider knowledge, I’m going on record predicting that we’ll see Did You Every Have a Family on the National Book Award long list this year. It’s THAT good.