Did You Ever Have a Family

Did You EverMy fellow Shadow (Wo)Man Booker panelists and I have noted that this year’s long list seems heavy on family stories, this debut novel by Bill Clegg included. But Did You Ever Have a Family is about a community as much as it is about a family. The tragedy at its heart, a fatal house fire the night before a wedding, touches many lives—and many lives came together to create the circumstances that led to the fire. Clegg gives us pictures not just of June, the mother of the bride and sole survivor, but of neighbors and friends connected to June and her family, both in the past and in the now lost future.

The book won me over immediately with its vision of small-town life. The small Connecticut town where June had lived for the last three years has two populations—the year-round residents who’ve mostly been there forever and the out-of-towners. Those weekend visitors “not only take the best houses, views, food, and, yes, flowers our little town has to offer, but they take the best of us, too,” Edith, the wedding florist, notes. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different character, some speaking in first person and others described in third. Gradually, the disparate perspectives give reader a full picture of the events leading up to the fire and the steps those left behind must take to heal.

June lost her daughter, her ex-husband, her future son-in-law, and her boyfriend in the fire. For her, the loss was complete—there was nothing left to keep her in place or in herself. But she wasn’t the only one to face loss. Lydia, another central character in the book, lost her son Luke, who’d been in a long-term relationship with June and was now suspected of setting the fire that killed him and three others. Luke, a black man in this nearly all-white community, had been an object of suspicion ever since his birth to two white parents (who divorced almost immediately).

So race enters into the book as does class, but they aren’t the book’s primary focus. Those tensions add to the tragedy and give it fuel. But the book is very much about its people. These are people affected by race and class and abuse and love and abuse and apathy and all the many forces and feelings at work in the world today. Each person feels these things differently, and Clegg gives each feeling space to breathe without forcing a particular attitude on readers. This isn’t a diatribe about race, for example, although it’s impossible not to be shocked by the way Luke is treated. And it’s not about abuse, even though Lydia’s history will upset anyone.

Mostly, I think the book is about how each of us is connected to everyone else and who we are makes an impact, whether we know it or not, on those around us. It sounds trite, I know, but it doesn’t feel that way. I think that because Clegg looks at how both wider societal injustices and smaller daily acts affect a life the book ends up feeling real and relevant.

Also, the last few pages really got to me. It’s sad and hopeful and lovely. I could easily see this making my shortlist. It’s not a lock as I have three more books to go, but I think I’ll have a hard time choosing between this and The Year of the Runaways if it comes down to it. I’m relieved to finally have four strong contenders!

Other Shadow Panel reviews: Nonsuch Book, Of Books and Bikes

Review copy provided by the publisher for Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panel judging.

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Did You Ever Have a Family

  1. comfyreading says:

    I want to read this one!

  2. Anokatony says:

    My Booker Status Report:
    I gave up on ‘The Fishermen’ after 40 pages after the scene where the father beats the boys. That wasn’t necessarily the reason I quit.. I will soon be starting Clegg’s book after I complete volume IV of Elena Ferrante’s magnum opus.

    • Teresa says:

      I hope you enjoy this (and the Ferrante–I’ve read none of her books yet). I’m curious about why you quit The Fishermen. As I mentioned in my review, it didn’t do much for me, but I was interested enough to see it through to the end.

  3. Denise says:

    Sounds interesting – I like the idea of portraying a small community – I guess these things often give us insights into how the dynamics of wider society work.

  4. The NYT book review said that this book was less emotional than the reviewer expected — did you find that? For a book about people who’ve lost everything? Because one of the main reasons I ruled out reading this at first was that it sounds unbearable to read, with the sadness.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t find it unbearably sad. The story is spread out among a lot of people with different connections to the tragedy so that not everyone actually lost everything. The characters who lost the most acted like people who lost a lot, but they didn’t seem like highly emotional people. That might be what the NYT reviewer was getting at. To me, it was a good level of emotion for these characters.

  5. Stefanie says:

    Sounds interesting. And Jenny already asked my question and you answered! :)

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