There is no blueprint for grief. We have no instructions to guide us as we traverse the menagerie of feelings that surround us after a tragedy. Some shut down, some run away. Others stay and watch the ashes of misery slowly burn out, knowing that when the last ember has been snuffed, the true pain will set in. This is the reality presented in Bill Clegg’s debut novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family”.
The tragedy that we are presented with is a stunner. In the early morning hours before her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s house explodes. Inside the house are her daughter Lolly, future son-in-law Will, ex-husband Adam and boyfriend Luke. All those inside are killed, leaving June as the only survivor, physically fine, but mentally shattered. After the funerals, June flees her New England town and sets out west, leaving behind Luke’s mother Lydia, possibly the only person whose pain rivals June’s own.
Bouncing between several of narrators, Clegg presents multiple perspectives on both the events leading up to the tragedy, as well as the aftermath. Yet the most moving passages of the book come from June and Lydia, two women who on the surface have little in common, but are linked through their shared suffering. As past events are slowly reveled we see parallel stories of betrayal, the devastating effects of lies on family dynamics, and the power of forgiveness.
“Did You Ever Have a Family” is not the book you pick up when you are looking for a laugh. There are at times a few too many story departures that will leave you without closure. You will, at some point, be frustrated by the amount of characters and story-lines you have to keep track of in your mind. A more cynical reader will find some revelations made by the characters cloying and saccharine. And, as someone who has never lived in a small town, it will drive you bonkers the thought that anyone could care so much about local gossip that they let it change the way they view people for years to come.
That aside, “Did You Ever Have a Family” is the kind of book that reads like a consoling hug. Layers of perception are slowly peeled away and the picture that we are given at the end, while not exactly happy, is satisfying and hopeful. It will not shock you, it may not even make you cry, but it will most certainly make you feel.
At the very least, it will make you want to run over to your mother’s house and give her a hug.