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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review of DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg

4 Stars
I came across this title last year when it appeared on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now, after a friend recommended it.  I’m glad I read it, though I understand why it didn’t make the shortlist.

June Reid loses her entire family on the eve of her daughter’s wedding.  Lost in a fire caused by an explosion are her daughter Lolly; Lolly’s fiancé, Will Landis; June’s much-younger romance interest, Luke Morey; and June’s ex-husband, Adam.  June feels like an untouchable, “Not from scorn or fear, but from the obscenity of the loss.  It was inconsolable, and the daunting completeness of it – everyone, gone – silenced even those most used to calamity.”  A reporter asks June how she’s surviving and she replies, “No one survived.”  The magnitude of her loss leaves June emotionally overwhelmed with grief and guilt and she runs, driving away from Connecticut and finally taking shelter in a motel on the Pacific Coast.

The novel, however, is not just June’s story.  From multiple viewpoints we see the reactions of a number of people, all connected in some way to the victims or their families.  Besides June, we hear from/about Luke’s mother, Will’s father, one of Luke’s teenaged employees, the wedding florist, the wedding caterer, the owners and the cleaner of the motel, and George whose connection to the tragedy is initially unclear.  Some sections are narrated in first person and others, in third person; some sections describe the present and others, the past. 

The book becomes a series of character studies.  We learn the back stories of virtually everyone, even the secondary characters.  As would be expected, it is the parents who are most developed as more and more details emerge.  Lydia, Luke’s mother, emerges as the most memorable.  Unfortunately, the characters given first person narratives all sound similar since there is little differentiation among the voices.

The book is also a study of grief.  There is a quiet, understated tone throughout, a tone most apt to convey the numbness experienced by those grieving.  Sometimes silence conveys the depth of one’s grief better than words:  one character observes that “There are no words precise enough to describe how wide and empty the world is when you lose someone that matters to you” and Will’s father mentions learning that “grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.”

And how does one get through grief?  The question posed by characters and the reader is “How do you recover from that?  How would you even begin?”   Luke’s mother concludes, “Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. . . . Someone down the line might need to know you got through it.  Or maybe someone you won’t see coming will need you. . . . And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day.  Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way.  I don’t think we get to know why.”

The book is not flawless.  I found it very difficult to believe that Luke’s mother acted as she did towards her son when he was a teenager, though there are news stories describing extreme non-maternal behaviour.  The unsent letter that is discovered near the end seems too convenient.  Some of the epiphanies experienced by characters are forced and trite, and many of these epiphanies are announced the same way for different characters:  “Funny how disasters can make you see what you could lose” (Rick) and “Funny . . . how things change when you look at them with older eyes” (Lydia) and “Funny how you think people are one way or the other and most of the time you end up completely wrong” (Rebecca) and “It’s funny to think that the wind has a shape but it does” (Lolly) and “The truth will set you freeFunny, she thinks . . . “(Lydia).  And don’t get me started on why there’s no question mark at the end of that awkward title!

Despite its weaknesses, this book is still a worthwhile read.  The depth of its character development and its authentic examination of people experiencing unimaginable sorrow will remain with you.