“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg

Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and National Book Awards, Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family (Jonathan Cape) is a moving meditation on grief and mourning. Set in the small town of Wells, Connecticut, a town in economic decline which serves as a weekend and holiday destination for New Yorkers, the story opens with 16-year-old Silas waking to the sound of sirens, and discovering that smoke is rising into the sky from a house not far from his own home.
  Clegg employs a number of characters to tell his story, and the perspective quickly switches to that of June, a native New Yorker who has just decided to leave Wells. It is now some weeks after the fire observed by Silas; we learn that the fire was the result of a gas leak in June’s house, where the wedding of her daughter Lolly and Lolly’s fiancé Will was due to take place. June is the only survivor of the blaze, which also killed her boyfriend, Luke. Numbed by the horror of her loss, June leaves Wells forever, not particularly caring where she drives.
  The perspective switches again, as Clegg continues to assemble the pieces of his mosaic-style narrative. We meet Lydia, Luke’s mother; Kelly, who runs the Moonstone Motel in Washington State, where June eventually fetches up; Cissy, the cleaner at the Moonstone who takes June under her wing; Dale, the father of Will; and Silas, who has guilty secrets he is desperate to confess.
  It’s a slow-burning tale initially, as the reader waits for the various pieces of the mosaic to fit and a pattern to emerge, but the patient reader will be richly rewarded. Clegg’s style allows for a number of ways of looking at the same central issue – the mystery of what caused the tragic fire – and also allows the story to move back and forth in time, so that at times we are observing people in the days, years and sometimes decades prior to the tragedy, while at other times we are exploring the consequences of the fire and the deaths, and learning how people are living with their loss and grief.
  It’s not quite as straightforward as Clegg simply slotting various pieces of story ‘jigsaw’ into place, however. As the story continues, the perspectives and personal stories begin to overlap in places, as accounts reinforce and sometimes contradict and occlude one another, which adds more dimensions to the individual stories and gives a greater depth and poignancy to the tale as a whole.
  In a quietly ambitious novel, Clegg weaves fascinating themes of impermanence (motels provide a recurring motif) and fractured families into his story, although the novel is at its most powerful when Clegg address the central issue of grief and death, and particularly in terms of that most devastating of losses, when a parent loses a child (June, Lydia and Dale have all lost children to the fire). “We’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud,” observes Dale at one point of his changing relationship with his wife, “and when it does, we try not to speak over it.”
  It’s a haunting, affecting story of tragedy in a minor key, a restrained and dignified excavation of the deepest emotions that never veers into the realms of the sentimental. The final perspective in the novel is provided by Cissy, when she realises that June and Lydia have found a kind of solace in one another. “Rough as life can be,” Cissy says, “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.”

This review was first published in the Irish Examiner

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