Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Many years ago, a friend-of-a-friend lost her whole family in a terrible accident. To have a family one minute and lose them the next was incomprehensible. As my friend mentioned how this woman was doing in the months and years after the accident, I marvelled at how people endure the seemingly unendurable.

How do you recover from that? How would you even begin?

And this is the question at the heart of Bill Clegg’s novel, Did You Ever Have A Family.

On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life is completely devastated when a house fire takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke – her entire family, gone in an instant. June flees her small town, in a desperate bid to outrun her grief. She leaves behind a community in mourning and as time passes, the connections to those that died emerge.

She was…an untouchable. Not from scorn or fear, but from the obscenity of the loss. It was inconsolable, and the daunting completeness of it – everyone, gone – silenced even those most used to calamity.

What Clegg does very well in this novel is capture the fragile time for someone grieving, as they move between deep, deep sadness and the demands and expectations of ‘ordinary’ life. In grief counselling, this is described in the dual process model, and while I’ve read about it extensively in scholarly texts, it’s rare to see it described so eloquently in a novel –

She has occupied space, tolerated each minute until the next one arrived, and then the next.

That anything could be bearable was a shameful minute-to-minute revelation.

The structure of the book reminded me very much of Olive Kitteridge – numerous narrators, small details that link the characters, and broad themes to provide cohesiveness. Clegg doesn’t pull it off as easily as Strout – in providing back-stories for each character, much of the emotional intensity of the tragedy is lost. This could have been avoided with fewer points-of-view – I would have been satisfied with focusing on June and Lydia (the mother of June’s boyfriend, Luke), whose stories are the most compelling. However, what Clegg does do is show us how the smallest acts of kindness – as simple as a nod hello – can be enough to allow people back into the world.

3/5 Sensitive.

I received my copy of Did You Ever Have A Family from the publisher, Gallery/ Scout Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The wedding caterer’s bill was forgotten in the midst of the tragedy –

My mom made Lolly Reid’s wedding cake. She got the recipe from a Brazilian restaurant in the city where she went one night after going in with her friends to see a show. It was a coconut cake made with fresh oranges.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 4): Belfast 9°-19° and Melbourne 5°-14°.

12 responses

  1. What an appalling thing to happen to your friend’s friend, the stuff of nightmares. I enjoyed this one much more than you, I think, but it’s very interesting to hear from a professional that he captured the stages of grieving so well, not something that you’re conscious off when it’s happening to you although I remember some of his descriptions hit home for me.

    • It’s still unbelievable, all these years later.

      People expect grief to be a linear thing, that they’ll ‘move on’ but it’s not like that at all, it’s a back-and-forth thing. Actually knowing that often helps people deal with grief, freeing them from this expectation to ‘progress’ through stages.

  2. I think you read too many books about grieving. I’ve led such a lucky life that I avoid them altogether, if I can. And the novel of partly connected stories, Strout owns it now – though Tim Winton did well with The Turning – I feel sorry for the authors who will always suffer by comparison.

    • I do wonder why I am drawn to books about grieving… and also why it’s an area of counselling that I do well in. It’s probably something to do with understanding exactly what this book is about – enduring the unendurable.

      And yes, agree about Strout.

  3. This is probably my worst nightmare. Last year I read a memoir by a man who lost his mother, wife, and daughter in a car accident and I don’t think I could handle another book with a premise like that, even in fiction.

  4. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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