This quietly arresting novel from literary agent Bill Clegg manages to creep up on you without you really noticing. Did You Ever Have A Family tells the tragic story of a house fire in Connecticut, a blaze which kills the entire family of June Reid, including her former husband Adam, new lover Luke, daughter Lolly and soon-to-be son-in-law Will, the night before Lolly’s wedding. Clegg drops us right into the heart of the action then pulls us away from it, as the devastated June takes off across America to escape her grief.
Each chapter is narrated by a different character, with several people recurring – June herself, mother to Lolly and older lover of Luke, and Lydia, Luke’s semi-estranged mother. These two women are the heart of the novel, and their grief becomes that of the reader’s as we watch them try to carry on living in the aftermath of the fire.
But this is small-town America, and a huge house fire does not slip by quietly. The novel brings together a cacophony of voices; from the teenage boy down the road to the man whose mother made Lolly Reid’s wedding cake – we see the event from all sides and become part of the rampant speculation as to who started the fire, and why. Clegg explores complex issues including racial prejudice – Luke is black, and has a criminal record – thus he becomes the prime suspect, despite there being no evidence. A particularly moving scene occurs in a coffee shop as Luke’s mother Lydia attempts to drink her tea alone; she hears the women on the next table gossiping about her son. Trapped in the shop, Lydia is forced to listen to them discuss the blaze and the deaths, and “there is nothing she can do to stop them. Nothing she can do to shut them up or shut them down. They are like the horseflies that circle her head when she walks along the town green in the summer. They dart and poke and buzz and dive, keeping pace no matter how slowly or quickly she moves.”
The town is claustrophobic, and we see quickly how damaging gossip can be. Everyone is talking: “I didn’t know much about June Reid before she started seeing Luke…” and Clegg explores the themes of reputation and shame, delving into Lydia’s past, exploring the controversial relationship between Luke and the much-older June, building up a picture in our heads as the townsfolk circle the surviving victims of the fire. Along with the gossip, though, Clegg brings us the grief; the intense mourning suffered by both June and Lydia, the tiny moments of healing they find in the wreckage of their lives. Lydia becomes hooked on a telephone scam just because she finds comfort in the operator’s voice; June lives a solitary life in a motel once visited by her dead daughter. The pain ricochets of the page.
I also found myself enjoying the ‘mystery’ aspect of this book – while its focus is on loss, Clegg manages to inject tension by creating a question in the reader’s mind – why did the house burn down? And was it anyone’s fault? The answer, when it comes, is both satisfying and sad. Did You Ever Have A Family takes a nightmare and pulls it apart, forcing one to imagine the circumstances in which the very worst does happen – and taking us through to the other side.