“She read novels, modern ones, about families and secrets and love.” June Reid watched her book-loving daughter die, burned alive. Also: her boyfriend, ex-husband, and daughter’s fiancé. “Funny how disasters can make you see what you could lose.” “The house without sound is now loud with nothing, no one.”
Why do we read such sad, tragic novels? Because “wounds can sing a beguiling song”. In the case of Bill Clegg’s DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY, the “song was irresistible”. In masterful, heart-wrenching prose, the author is able to captivate our sense and definition of family. “No one can see wilting petals from the pews.” Clegg takes us close to each element of human connection, be it: race, social status, age, or gender. He helps us to “remember thinking this is what it feels like to be home. Here. In the space around and between us.”
Aside from the June’s devastating loss, is the loss suffered by Lydia, the mother of June’s boyfriend. Her story is “about a girl who made the wrong turn in the forest and had no way out.” Her thoughts: “I’ve never been anyone except someone’s housekeeper, daughter, wife, girlfriend, or mother, and in all of those roles I have failed and now I play no role.” In such tragedies, there’s a domino falling effect of pain. Though, in tragedy, there is the reverse stacking effect of support: “Thank God she has someone to look out for her. Thank God any of us do.”
Clegg takes us coast-to-coast, past to present, looking at and analyzing the power of connectedness and of the human spirit. Though trials face us all, poor to rich, white to black, gay and straight, we all have something within ourselves that’s a puzzle piece longing to be fit together. DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY is a triumph in solving these questions, not in complexity, but in barebones, vulnerable storytelling. “This was not lonely or angry or lusty or grieving. This was human.”
“The world’s magic sneaks up on your in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned.” Don’t expect to leave this book dry eyed. “Grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” The agent-turned-author carefully constructs his novel to use both first person and third person perspectives of a wide range of affected characters: neighbors, lovers, wedding planners, and hotel workers. As each witness speaks, peeling away the layers of their story, we sit mesmerized by its trueness. “Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part.”
No doubt, DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY is one of the best novels you’ll read this year. It is a triumphant entry for Bill Clegg, easily putting him among the highest ranks of authors, making this book worthy of its Man Booker list.
You may wonder about the North American cover of this book: orange, faded, beat up. Even the inside binding has purposefully portrayed faded white spots on solid green backing. Not to spoil much for you, but Lolly kept journals in orange notebooks. June found and read these, “To be given a glimpse now was a bitter miracle, a ghostly caress that left more regret than solace.”
Clegg has worked on this novel for over a decade, yet I can’t help but draw comparisons to the Christmas morning house fire, in a similar area of Connecticut featured in this story, where a mother lost her parents and three children. Here’s the New York Times coverage: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/26/nyr…
Do yourself a favor, read DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY. And once you’ve defined who your family is—give them a hug, hold them tight. Cherish them.