At first I had trouble with the title of this novel. Something about it sounds too posed and self-helpish or cloyingly sentimental like The Simpson’s character Monty Burns’ hilariously-titled autobiography “Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?” The question this novel poses is taken from an Alan Shapiro poem about the catastrophic loss of a loved one. Not so much a question as an achingly painful statement of fact for a family now broken and lost. At one point in “Did You Ever Have a Family” a character directly posits this statement to another. It’s a way of contemplating the meaning of family and our connection to one another. It takes on layers of meaning over the course of reading this novel making you wonder if families can survive despite how we might tear each other apart or fail one another. Told through a variety of characters’ perspectives, this is a novel that presents points of views about how different families can be shaped and how individuals continue reforming connections even after experiencing devastation.
At the centre of Bill Clegg’s novel revolving around a single disastrous event is a chilly silence. Many of the characters have retreated from the world to grieve and think in solitude. Contemplation is needed because “grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” Former art dealer June literally walked out of her life with only the possessions in her pocket and now stays in a distant isolated motel for the foreseeable future. Cleaner Lydia stops working after a dramatic confrontation with gossiping ladies. She lives frugally and her only human connection is with a scammer who calls her persistently on the phone. Lydia wilfully submits to this man who claims she’s won the lottery despite knowing it’s a con. This reminds me strongly of the wonderful debut novel “We Are Not Ourselves” in which a grieving wife Eileen participates in spiritualist sessions which demand large fees despite her awareness she’s not really connecting with her deceased husband again. (Incidentally, author Matthew Thomas is a client of literary agent Bill Clegg.) It’s a particularly insidious characteristic of con-artists to prey upon the grief-stricken who might not be fooled but feel they must offer some monetary sacrifice as penance for ways they feel they’ve failed their lost loved ones.
There are beautiful passages of reflection, but overall this is a very chatty novel. Out of a tale about a house that literally exploded come the voices and opinions of the community around this event with their judgements, sympathy and tales of their own tragedies. At first it’s all speculation and opinion about the central mystery of how this disaster which claimed five lives (including a couple shortly due to be wed) occurred. The disparate voices did at times sound like talk show guests or subjects in a Frederick Wiseman documentary as they are so firmly entrenched and certain about the rightness of their point of view. But, out of these perspectives which ricochet off one another, emerge fuller stories about a scorned wife who gave birth to an illegitimate mixed-race boy named Luke, the tragic foreshortening of his promising future and the unlikely love he found with a divorced woman estranged from her family. There is also the tale of lovers Kelly & Rebecca whose hard-won romance sees them settle into a peaceful life running a motel. Gradually the novel is taken over by the more authoritative voices of June, Lydia, Silas (a wayward stoner with a sexual infatuation with Lydia) and Cissy (a motel cleaner who offers solace to lost souls). The novel takes on real velocity in the second half where the accumulation of details pays off to form a moving conclusion.
“Did You Ever Have a Family” contains a clamour of voices with stories which at times tip into the melodramatic, but at its heart it says something very touching about overwhelming grief and the endeavour to persist because “we are supposed to stick around and play our part.” For a novel containing such sadness, I found a lot of rapturous pleasure in discovering what really happened and assembling the jigsaw puzzle of connections between the characters.