You may already know that Bill Clegg’s debut has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. It’s only the second novel from the list I’ve read – the other’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I know that many readers are in the grip of A Little Life mania but Did You Ever Have a Family is so extraordinarily good it’s going to be hard to beat. It unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it.
The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years in the holiday home she once rarely visited. She leaves behind a fifteen-year-old-boy who can’t escape the events of that night, her boyfriend’s mother and a morass of gossip and speculation. Black and twenty years June’s junior, Luke had a jail sentence for drug trafficking behind him. His mother married into a well-respected family, only to find herself mistreated then thrown out when she gave birth to Luke. A string of bad choices culminated in the man who framed her son, triggering an estrangement recently repaired with the help of June whose own fractured relationship with her daughter has only just begun to heal. After the funerals, June heads west across the country, holing up in Room 6 of the Moonstone motel for months until a rapprochement is made and some sort of peace found. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s carefully assembled novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.
Clegg is well-known in the States as a literary agent. As I read this elegantly crafted novel I wondered if those skills had honed his work in the way that William Maxwell’s – much-lauded for his editorial light touch and the author of some of the finest novels I’ve read – did for his writing. Narrated from many different perspectives, each chapter unfolds another aspect of what has happened, subtlety shading in the back stories of the character in question and their view of this small disaster – from the unpaid caterer who cannot bring himself to pursue his fee, to Luke’s mother, the butt of gossip since she was a schoolgirl now so desperately lonely she tells her story to a telephone scammer knowing full well what he’s up to. Characters are expertly drawn, pernicious smalltown gossip quietly conveyed, the line between weekender and local beautifully delineated: ‘We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors’ says Edith, the florist, neatly encapsulating the weekenders’ expectations and their well-meaning but somewhat patronising attitudes to the locals. It’s not simply a gorgeously told story: it has something to say to us all about the inter-connectedness of humanity, its terrifying fragility and above all, about hope. As Cissy says ‘All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company’. I’ve read many fine novels this year but this is one of the finest. I do hope there’s a second one in the works.