Reviewed by Vickie Fang
Did You Ever Have a Family? opens with a 15-year-old stoner looking out his bedroom window at the smoke from a distant fire. We soon learn that a house has burned down, leaving Joan, its horrified owner, alive while her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and Joan’s own much-loved live in boyfriend have all been killed. Joan takes off in a mad, cross country drive, and the town is left to wonder what happened. The mystery of how the fire started continues to unravel throughout most of the book, but it is always clear that the real story is how anyone will manage to survive it. In the process, we come to know not only Joan, but her boyfriend’s mother, Lydia, as well as the father he never knew, her daughter’s finance’s father, the caterers for the planned wedding, the pot head who first looked out his window, the owners of the seaside hotel where Joan eventually takes up residence, Cissy the hotel maid who cleans her room, and many more.
At first glance, Did You Ever Have a Family? has a very modern feel. It’s told in short chapters that showcase every single character named above, most of them speaking in first person as if we were reading linked short stories rather than a true novel. There’s minimal present-tense action and much emphasis on the characters’ varied pasts. Clegg’s book sets up a fractured, all truths are relative sort of expectation, but it delivers a supremely coherent final product in which all these voices come together in a single story of loneliness and redemption. It is a deeply moving book, one that I am sure I will be rereading. I’ll want to visit again with such compelling characters as Cissy and Lydia, and I’ll want to continue to explore how the author used some of the most venerable aspects of the novel, setting, plot, theme to anchor such a fresh and seemingly free-form book.
The setting for the ruined house is Wells, a town where wealthy New Yorkers like to keep their weekend homes. One night the caterer drives down the road there and thinks,
The moon was out, so I could see chimney tops and the dormers, but
one after the next, all the way down to the town green, dark. It occurred
to me that night and since that we no longer live in a town, not a real one
anyway. We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open weekends, and
we are its janitors.
Lydia is less able to think in clever metaphors, but her sense of isolation and blighted opportunity in Wells is powerful enough to make the reader feel a physical sense of claustrophobia. The Moonstone hotel on the other side of the country where Joan ends up is in some ways as bleak as anything in Wells. Owned by two lesbians with a lonely past, it’s small, cheap, isolated, and at least once invaded by moronic rich people who willfully misunderstand their surroundings. It also stands on the Pacific ocean and is cared for by people who have a deep connection with the past and a willingness to nurture in small, humble ways, the future. As the book moves, slowly, character by character, to Moonstone, we feel its healing effect.
The plot, though slim, is a mystery that moves both backwards and forwards in time. Joan is rushing across the country trying to flee not only the horror of what has happened, but what appears to be a sense of guilt. The sheer energy of her escape powers up the opening of the book, while her guilt prompts a few questions. She doesn’t seem like someone who might have burned down the house herself in a fit of rage, but we wonder — how did the fire start? How was she the only one spared? Is this a murder mystery? And the boyfriend’s mother, Lydia, why had she spent years estranged from her son? And both these grieving women, what can they possibly do to make their lives worth living again?
The answer to the last question comes in the book’s theme, that tragedy can be borne when there is connection and forgiveness. Every character in the book echoes this theme in some way, large or small, and it is very much to Clegg’s credit that they do so in ways that are their own and done for their own reason. After complaining at some length about the “monkey work” flower arrangements and the weekenders who “never dirty their hands with anything the rest of us have to,” it is the caterer, one of the least important figures in the book, who first sounds the theme through an act of kindness.
No one ever accused me of being a soft touch, but when something like what happened at June Reid’s that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person
in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters.
Which is why, when you stumble on something you can do, you do it. So that’s
what I did.
This is a complex novel, told with deceptive simplicity. Its horror is deftly understated. The image of the fire-destroyed home is painted by an overheard gossip who excitedly tells her lunch companions about a burned tree left standing “like some scary Halloween decoration. Can you imagine?” Simple words, but the callousness of the entire scene is painful in a way that the most sonorous rhetoric could not be. The reason for Lydia’s estrangement from her son arrives so slowly, in the midst of such a welter of fraudulent phone calls and little lies that turn into big ones that the revelation itself just sort of slips out in a way that feels as inevitable as it is appalling.
Even on the rare occasion when the language is allowed to soar a bit, it stays firmly rooted in the everyday life of everyday people. It is the Moonstone’s owner who lies in bed at night, contemplating tragedies both personal and global as she tries to imagine how she has ever managed to find a place of peace. She is the one who gives us a preview of the contentment that may be possible.
I studied the water-stained ceiling of the room and imagined the things it had seen, the
people. Who else had huddled here, pressed into someone they loved as if they were the
last thing on earth that mattered? Who else prayed that morning would never come? Prayed they’d never have to leave this bed and let go.
That night, the moon glowed through the curtains of the locked window, its storybook light dancing a path to the horizon, to the other side of the world. Two car doors slammed in the parking lot — one, then a moment later, the other. I listened for footfalls or keys turning in locks but heard nothing but the crashing surf outside. From the bed, I could see stars. At first, only the big ones: bright and fat and alone, jumping with urgency, and then the rest: tiny and fierce, a billion grains of sand spilling across the night sky, shining like the coast of heaven. Kelly’s sleeping body rose and fell with each breath. I curled closer, held tighter. I pressed my nose to her back and through the thin cotton smelled the motel soap on her skin. Waves collapsed and exploded on the beach, one after the other, again and again. I was home.
Have You Ever Had a Family? has been long listed for the Man Booker award. The short list will appear the same day this review does. I’m hoping this impressive new novel is on it.