Think about a shocking news event and consider how much any of us know about what really happened. The story, whether it’s the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the tsunami that hit Southern Asia in 2004 or the death of Princess Diana, doesn’t come to us completely; neatly packaged into a start-to-finish narrative. The story only really emerges in fragments through the voices of the participants. Each of them has a reaction, a perspective to share, a fact to divulge. Together they get woven into something approaching the total picture.
The idea that a story is the sum of desperate, diverse voices is the premise for Bill Clegg’s 2015 Man Booker award long-listed novel Did You Ever Have a Family. In it he takes a tragic event, one that has a domestic rather than world dimension, and looks at the aftermath from the perspective of the sole survivor, those connected to her or connected to the victims.
Did You Ever Have a Family begins on the night before the wedding of June Reid’s only daughter Lolly. By the early hours, the prospective bride and her fiance William are dead, victims of a gas explosion that ripped the house apart. Also dead is June’s ex husband Adam and her boyfriend Luke. Only June survives.
The meaner voices among June’s Connecticut neighbourhood are quick to attribute the tragedy to her wilful behaviour (what do you expect when a white woman shacks up with a black man who’d done time for drugs?). But even they recognise there are some questions that do not have easy answers: “How do you recover from that? How would you even begin? asks one of the gossips. June’s answer is to flee immediately the funerals are over, driving the breadth of the country and eventually taking refuge in a motel room on the edge of the ocean.
It’s left to a chorus of voices to fill in the details and to reveal little by little what happened on that terrible night. Some of them are principal players like Luke’s mother Lydia and the troubled adolescent Silas who harbours feelings of guilt about his part in the tragedy. Others such as Dale, William’s father, are directly affected but many of the voices come from bystanders like the wedding florist and caterer. They’re decent, hard working individuals in the main. As they reflect on the events of that terrible night, they come to understand more deeply the complexities and joys of their own lives and relationships.
Clegg takes a risk by narrating his story in such a fragmentary fashion. It works, up to a point (we needed more variety in the voices to be truly effective). He manages the structure and pace extremely well, slotting in small disclosures about the character’s relationships to keep his readers engaged. He’s good too at showing the tensions between the locals in June’s community and the New Yorkers who buy up all the properties as weekend homes. The “little, old bitter, spinster” florist Edith, articulates the ambivalent attitudes of the locals about these “pampered and demanding” city dwellers. They take the best houses, views, food and flowers from the town and “never dirty their hands with any of the things the rest of us have to, nor shoulder the actual weight of anything.” But she also acknowledges: “We can’t bear them and yet we are borne by them.”
However for me the novel ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise. The freshness of Clegg’s approach disappeared towards the final section and we ended up with the rather safe message about redemption and the value of family. Maybe Clegg’s own journey back from his battle with addiction explain why he wanted to end with a positive note about the potential for hope. As true as that was in his case, in this novel it felt too obvious a solution.
Did You Ever Have a Family, published by Gallery/Scout Press is Bill Clegg’s debut novel. Clegg is a literary agent in New York.He’s written memoirs and articles for publications including the New York Times, Esquire, The Guardian and Harper’s Bazaar.
You can listen to Bill Clegg talk about his novel in a video on the Simon and Schuster’s web site For alternative views to mine, take a look at :