A fire engulfs and destroys a house in Connecticut, killing June Reid’s daughter and her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend. Instead of celebrating the marriage of her daughter, which had been planned for that very day, June is faced with unimaginable grief and loss. Literary agent-turned-writer Bill Clegg starts his first full-length novel with exactly this scene, as he draws the reader into a story that touches on a range of human frailties, and on all human emotions.
June flees from her town, trying to escape the vision and physical reminders of the night that stole so much of her life away, but also trying to make sense of the relationships and mistakes that existed in her life. Clegg paints a picture of her flight from Connecticut – a picture that describes a woman coping with the enormity of her loss by fleeing with the tawdry few items that remain in her possession: “There is nothing to pack, nothing to organize or prepare. All she has with her is the clothing on her body and the linen jacket she wore eighteen nights ago when she rushed from the house”.
The pathetic attention to detail, when there are so few details, wonderfully sums up the flux in the mind of someone undergoing such trauma. There has been no thought of buying clothes, no thought of organising a new start; all of June’s thoughts are scrambled into incoherence, brought about by the abrupt and irreversible ending of hope.
Clegg then takes the reader through a series of chapters, sometimes written in disparate first-person voices and sometimes as third-person reports, which give viewpoints from other residents in the town where the fire took place. Cleverly written, and chilling in their baring of human nature, the chapters combine to create a book strewn with petty jealousies, sexual tensions, latent racism, and overt homophobia. The mother of June’s now-deceased boyfriend, Luke, endures a particularly hard time as the story unfolds. She is Lydia, whose son is black though her husband was white. Lydia refuses to reveal the father, and her subsequent behaviour reveals loose morals, which may or may not be exaggerated through the voices of neighbours and relations. Through her own voice we hear of her framing her son for a crime that her boyfriend committed – she thinks her son will only get “a slap on the wrist” when in fact he “spent eleven months in prison” for something he never did. It is very easy to despise Lydia for her actions, while also sympathising with her for being so morally inept.
The taking of drugs is another issue which runs through much of the book, and it seems to be treated in a commonplace way; yet it becomes key to some of the proceedings. Clegg openly admits to his own drug addiction in a previous publication, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: a Memoir (2010), and his experiential knowledge of such things allows him to describe the physical and hallucinatory aspects with rare clarity.
Did You Ever Have a Family is a layered and textured look at actions and reactions. It shocks and repulses in the clarity of the spite and hatred it evinces in this tale of human interaction. There is grief of the deepest sort, and inopportune openings of wounds, but there are also instances of forgiveness and healing which come together. Clegg does not euphemise, and his potent mixture of selfish, biased views on the grief and dystopic lifestyles of others is very effective. Some people might find it an uncomfortable read, and others will be attracted to it, but for all readers it is a powerful book, and not one that will easily be forgotten.