Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family was one of my favorite debuts for 2015. It came out last week in paperback so if you missed it last year you need to get after it now. A wonderful novel that lends itself to book club/reading group discussions.
If you take a major event and separate out all the people involved in that event—whether responsible for it or impacted by it, you get wildly divergent impressions about what actually happened. This is what author Bill Clegg does so soulfully in his debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family. June’s daughter Lolly, her daughter’s fiancé, June’s ex-husband, and her boyfriend are all gathered in her home to celebrate Lolly’s wedding the following day until this happiest of occasions ends before it begins with everyone but June dead. This is not a mystery novel. The hows and whys of what happened are secondary to the imprint left on each of the characters and how they stagger through the weeks and months after the tragedy.
Clegg arranges his narrators in a way that feels as organic and simple as writing about objects as they catch one’s eye and then moving on, but there is nothing simple about Did You Ever Have a Family. Each narrator has their own chapter, using it in the present and in the past, which is both a help and a hindrance in the beginning. Until the entire puzzle is framed it is hard to know how each of these voices relates to the other. It is only once the pieces begin to fall into place that the awful, sorrowful beauty of the novel takes shape. We see that June’s relationship to her daughter is complicated by choices she made in her marriage. Her new boyfriend is almost half her age and has spent much of his life maligned because of his race. His mother, although a beauty, has never found her looks to be anything but trouble. When June’s response to the loss of all her loved ones is to take off across country, these stories link into a chain with a whole other cast of people that encounter her in her travels.
What struck me most in Did You Ever Have a Family is how perfectly composed it is. Far from being random objects, every story, every person in the novel is integral to the whole. They may not come together cleanly in our initial observations but as Clegg lets their narratives flow without judgment so too are we coaxed into releasing our own preconceived notions. In doing so, we become open to the complexity and far reaching impact of even the smallest of decisions. Clegg does not provide the glib panacea to death and grief we might desire, but instead leaves us with what we really need: understanding.