In the world of serious literary fiction, the conflation of bleakness and profundity means that too often the novels declared the most important are those that plumb new depths of human cruelty and suffering. Two of the 13 books on this year’s Man Booker prize longlist explore the trauma of childhood abuse, a third a savagely dystopian London, but it is their fellow nominee Bill Clegg’s debut novel that would appear at first sight to blow his competition for grimmest subject matter out of the water.
Did You Ever Have a Family opens on a summer morning, the morning of June Reid’s daughter’s wedding. Except that in the early hours a gas leak at June’s house has caused an explosion. The fire that follows kills her whole family, not only her daughter Lolly and William, Lolly’s fiance, but also her boyfriend, Luke, and her ex-husband Adam. Only June survives. In a single stroke she has lost everyone she loves. The loss, as she herself numbly acknowledges, is obscene. It is left to a gossiping neighbour in a local coffee shop to put the question June herself cannot begin to ask, let alone answer: “How do you recover from that? How would you even begin?”
It is a premise so harrowing that a reader might themselves question the wisdom of beginning the novel. But from the ashes of the fatal blaze Clegg has drawn a tale of prodigious tenderness and lyricism. As June flees her small Connecticut town, driving the breadth of the country in a desperate attempt to outpace her grief, her family’s story is taken up by an interwoven chorus of voices, all of them involved in one way or another with those who have died.
Some, like Lydia, Luke’s ostracised mother, and Dale, William’s stricken father, are struggling to find ways to cope with their loss; others, such as the wedding florist and the couple who run the motel where William and Lolly stayed together, are affected less directly by the tragedy.
But for them all the senseless events of that terrible night shine a light into the complexities and compromises of their own lives, the ordinary joys and heartbreaks of family and friendships, the small things that we fail to do and the precious gifts that we so quickly come to take for granted.
Like Anne Tyler, another contender for this year’s Man Booker, Clegg is a master of investing the mundane with what John Updike called “its beautiful due”. June’s home town is a weekend retreat for wealthy New Yorkers but the men and women who piece together her story are the invisible ones, the cleaners and the gardeners and the cooks. They are the outsiders, overlooked or even shunned because of their race, their age, their sexuality, because of mistakes made long ago. They live small, unspectacular lives. Their secrets are shameful, tawdry, the result of laziness or obstinacy or stupidity or too much to drink.
In short, they are all of us. From his small-town milieu, Clegg has conjured a novel that reveals the depths of the human heart. Himself a recovering addict and the author of two acclaimed memoirs about addiction, he understands better than most the emotional damage we wreak on one another, the crushing burden we are condemned to carry when we make mistakes with catastrophic consequences that can never be undone.
Did You Ever Have a Family is a meditation on enduring the unendurable, about keeping going even when it seems impossible to find anything worth going on for, but it is also a testament to the solace that comes, if not from forgiveness exactly, then from acceptance, from seeking to understand and be understood. As Edith, the florist, observes, a tragedy such as June’s makes everyone else feel that “nothing you could do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it.”
What sustains us in the end is sympathy, kindness, the electrical hum of connection with others, however faint. Clegg takes occasional missteps –the unlikely redemption offered by an unsent letter accidentally discovered seems like cheating – but for the most part this is a wonderful and deeply moving novel, which compels us to look directly into the dark night of our deepest fears and then quietly, step by tiny step, guides us towards the first pink smudges of the dawn.
Clare Clark’s We That Are Left is published by Harvill Secker.
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