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