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Book Review: Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Book Review: Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Last year’s Man Booker longlisted Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg is a slim book dealing with issues related to family and race but it packs an emotional wallop. It starts off with a raging fire that burns June’s house and kills her entire family. However, among all the atrocities the single accident unleashes against June, the cruellest is leaving her alive to pick up the pieces of a barren life.

Clegg takes the readers on a visceral exploration of grief and its myriad facets. June loses her daughter, Lolly, former husband Adam, her partner Luke, as well as her daughter’s fiancé, Will. The book depicts all that transpires in the wake of this colossal tragedy, and how it brings all the latent personal demons and underlying communal tensions to the fore.

There is a bevy of characters that Clegg employs to fill the gaps in the backstories of principal characters of the book. The approach works in this small town setting which thrives on locals’ gossip and hearsay, since the town is primarily bankrolled by New Yorkers who come to spend their vacations in the town. Edith, the florist for the wedding, fills us in on the rumours that have circulated about June all these years in a resort town about which she says, “…we no longer live in a town, not a real one anyway. We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors.”

The catastrophic fire has made June an anomaly in the tightly knit community. June observes that she has instantly become an untouchable. “Not from scorn or fear, but from the obscenity of the loss. It was inconsolable, and the daunting completeness of it – everyone, gone – silenced even those most used to calamity”. June remains intransigent in her refusal to numb her overwhelming grief in any way. She takes no tranquilizers, enters no psychiatric care, seeks no solace from other people but instead drives off, in a bid to outrun her sorrow, to a coastal motel where Lolly once stayed. Meanwhile, Lydia, Luke’s mother, has become a recluse, struggling to come to terms with the premature end of his son’s life. Both women have reasons to feel accountable for the accident and are battling with crippling sorrow and guilt.did-you-ever-have-a-family-crop-02The fire occurs at the very beginning of the novel and from there, we are told about the reverberations of the tragedy by a cacophony of narrative voices. Here in lies the weak link of the book. The aftermath of the disaster is recounted by a cast of a few major characters and several minor ones. The in-depth viewpoint is focused on June who is the primary victim, having lost all her family and Lydia, who has had a few too many turbulences in her life. If the story was focused on these two characters only, it would have made it more cohesive. Some of the other superfluous characters and their personal histories add absolutely nothing to the story arc and only end up with the reader struggling to keep track of their names and their, typical to small towns, warped connections with each other.

There are some other minor niggles with the plot, for instance a postcard which the guilt-riddled June finds in Lolly’s belongings, which provides some early vindication, seems a bit far fetched. However, Clegg’s compassionate handling of a complex topic like grief and its various manifestations really resonates with the reader. The passages outlining June and Lydia’s characters especially stick with the reader due to the translucent portrayal of their loss and despair.

Their bereavement is intimately probed but it’s to Clegg’s credit that he never steers towards melodrama. His rendering of the tragedy stays understated, injecting the narrative with pathos and buoyancy. He poignantly explores the circularity of things and how life goes on – like when the florist who was supposed to prepare daisies for the wedding remarks, “The daisies did not go to waste. Every single one was put to use. They never did see the inside of any jelly jars, but they found their way into a hundred or more funeral arrangements.

Did You Ever Have a Family is about characters that have to battle with their emotional baggage along with the curveballs that life has thrown at them. Yet somehow they find closure, strength and reasons to go on despite adversities. It’s a subtle and melancholic story about binding family ties which ends on a life-affirming note.

★★★★

Did You Ever Have a Family was published by Vintage on 1 September 2016. 

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