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Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg [2015 Booker longlist]

did you ever have a familyThink 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.

End Notes

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 TimesEsquire, 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 :

The Guardian review

The Daily Telegraph review

New York Times review

Man Booker Prize longlist 2015

I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.

My reactions to the list are rather mixed.

On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.

On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.

  • Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
  • The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
  • The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
  • Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
  • The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
  • The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
  • Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
  • Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
  • The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
  • The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
  • A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author

Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13.  My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen. 

For other views on the list take a look at:

PJE’s Booker Blog

Clare at Word by Word

 

 

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