Sunday, 13 September 2015

Booker Longlist: Did You Ever Have a Family?

Bill Clegg's novel Did You Ever Have a Family is a work of immense lyrical grace. Absolutely sure-footed, Clegg guides us through the parched landscapes of loss following the gas explosion that wipes out June Reid's family, the evening before her only daughter's wedding. The novel is articulated with great tenderness, unpacking the various ambivalences which surround human intimacy and social hierarchy. Belonging, desire, vulnerability, betrayal, isolation: each chapter brings a different voice to the chorus, sheds a new light on the tragedy. Relationships, Clegg suggests, are incendiary even without faulty appliances. It only takes a little fault, something you learn to live with, to trigger calamity. Even the people on the remotest reaches of this catastrophe reveal the ways in which the disasters they must live with are as much a result of their characters as of fate.
Beautifully paced, each chapter permits another piece of the story to drop into place, which makes for a pleasingly satisfying read. The base note is gentleness. This, the novel proposes, is the way to heal. This is hard-won intelligence. Each character's small, flawed life needs care. Those that give care elevate the novel to something elegiac. Those that withhold it, ground us in the unnecessary small meannesses of everyday life.
The premise of this novel presents Clegg with a technical problem. Because the main event wipes out the family of the title right at the beginning of the book, the action of the novel is almost all retrospective. June's odyssey across America to try and put some physical distance between her life and what remains of it, is numbed by grief. In effect she becomes a ghost in her own life. That Clegg is able to sustain our interest and our compassion for the characters through the rest of the novel, is testament to his skill in observing the detail of ordinary lives. The gap between who June is in this novel, and who she hoped she would be is at the heart of why we care for her. That gap is what motivates all the characters in one way or another. It is what underpins their relationships and enables them to be more fully real than even they feel themselves to be. And it is this, more than anything, that lifts Bill Clegg's novel beyond the ordinary, and makes it something really rather wonderful.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

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