Longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ by Bill Clegg opens with an explosion caused by a gas leak at June Reid’s house on the morning of her daughter’s wedding. The resulting fire destroys the whole house and kills June’s boyfriend Luke, ex-husband Adam, daughter Lolly, and Lolly’s fiancé William. June is the sole survivor and in the wake of the tragedy, she drives across the country to Washington. During her journey, details about the lives of the characters involved and the cause of the fire begin to emerge.
Clegg is a successful literary agent based in the United States who has written two memoirs about his drug addiction and recovery prior to ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ which is his first novel. Despite its catastrophic premise, it is a very “quiet” novel about small-town life in Connecticut told from the point of view of several different characters who are in some way connected to the family members involved in the fire. Much of the story consists of flashbacks and focuses on June, Luke’s mother Lydia and alternating chapters about other supporting characters, some in the first person and others in the third.
There are some moments of brilliance in Clegg’s writing, with some particularly astute observations about wealthy families from New York who only visit the town during the weekends and their behaviour towards the local residents. There are also some poignant and nuanced reflections on June’s response to her traumatic experience. Clegg’s writing is very well crafted, controlled and pleasingly unpretentious for the most part, especially for a novel dealing with powerful themes of grief and loss. On the other hand, I wasn’t truly blown away by it and I can see why ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ might have been regarded as a safe and relatively unambitious choice on the Man Booker Prize longlist compared to the other nominated novels such as the harrowing A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and this year’s winner ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James.
‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ is a quietly understated and often affecting novel. However, I think it is one where the characters are likely to blur in my memory rather than remain crystal clear.
Many thanks to Random House / Vintage Books for sending me a review copy of ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ via NetGalley.