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.
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°.