Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Did You Ever Have a Family, by BIll Clegg

Staff review by Chris Hubbard


Bill Clegg's debut novel is a tightly controlled and beautifully constructed  book peopled with flawed yet sympathetic  characters

Bill Clegg, whose previous books include two memoirs, has written a remarkable first work of fiction. It’s a riveting account of a family tragedy,  yet despite the solemn subject matter is also a story about forgiveness and compassion.

A small town in Connecticut is preparing for the wedding of  June Reid’s daughter but the unimaginable occurs when the family house burns down taking with it the lives of June’s daughter Lolly, her fiance, June’s ex-husband as well as her current boyfriend.

After the funerals, June’s only thought is to climb into her car and drive on for days on end. Caught up in a maelstrom of grief she arrives at a motel on the West Coast and it is there she inhabits Room Six and begins to try to make sense of an unravelled life. 

But this novel is not just about June’s life as each chapter offers a different perspective on what has happened.  Lydia, the mother of June’s much younger boyfriend, has also been deeply affected by the deaths. Not only does she have to endure the barbs of small town gossip but also the loneliness of her life. During this period of intense vulnerability she falls victim to a telephone scammer who tries to  extract money from her.

Other chapters introduce characters who barely know June and Lydia but were connected because of the upcoming wedding. A florist, a baker and most importantly a young drug-affected man whose job it was to help with preparing the garden but who also witnessed what could have been the cause of the fire.  The two women who own the motel that June stays at also have their own story to tell when Cissy, their cleaner, befriends June.

Lest anyone think this book sounds unbearably bleak you can be assured that it’s Bill Clegg’s compassionate writing that transcends its grim subject matter. The mystery surrounding the cause of the fire is just one element of a tightly controlled and beautifully constructed  book peopled with flawed yet sympathetic  characters.  It’s a story about the ways in which people seemingly disconnected from each other can be drawn together via the most tenuous of circumstances. There’s an awful lot of loneliness in Did You Ever Have a Family but the reader isn't left believing there is never any hope.

Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN:  9780224102360 RRP: $32.99 

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