Review – Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

I wasn’t sure about reading this one, because of the stupid bloody title. (Seriously, where is the question mark??) Its appearance in the book, when it does, is pretty darn clunky too, by the way.

Fortunately, that’s one of the only (minor) missteps in a book I otherwise loved. This fits an awful lot into its relatively few pages, about how humans interact with each other across a variety of different relationships and situations.

A few things I noticed:

The alternating narration:

I struggle sometimes with alternating points of view. I like to sink into a narrative, and its characters, and frequent changes in narrative voice can make that difficult. Here, though, it’s done well. I found it jarring at first, but I think too much first-person would have been overly sentimental, whereas all third-person might have ended up feeling a bit, well, impersonal. The voices themselves aren’t that different, which may have helped, and the points of view were also just interconnected enough to prevent it from feeling disjointed.

How good Bill Clegg is at capturing small-town politics:

‘The weekenders from the city not only take the best houses, views, food, and, yes, flowers our little town has to offer, but they take the best of us, too. They arrive at the end of each week texting and calling from trains and cars with their demands – driveways to be plowed, wood to stack, lawns to mow, gutters needing cleaning, kids to be babysat, groceries to be bought, houses to be cleaned, pillows needing fluffing. For some, we even put up their Christmas trees after Thanksgiving and take them away after New Year’s. They never dirty their hands with any of the things the rest of us have to, nor shoulder the actual weight of anything. We can’t bear them and yet we are borne by them.’ This from the cynical Edith, who doesn’t make many more appearances, but who is one of the book’s most distinct voices.

The small-town feel is best captured, though, by the Lydia chapters. These really capture both the claustrophobia and the sense of belonging (even when you don’t belong), in passages such as: ‘She kicks at a pile of leaves that have been raked and left uncollected on the sidewalk and considers the thousands of times she’s walked here – as a little kid, a teenager, a mother, and now. She can’t imagine anyone walking these sidewalks as many times as she has. My feet are famous to these sidewalks, she thinks, and the idea almost amuses her, its novelty breaking for a split second the panic that drove her from the coffee shop.’

The humour:

The varying points of view also allow for occasional glimpses of humour, and the levity of the everyday. For example: ’No one tells you about health inspectors or wheelchair access when you’re first thinking of opening a place that serves the perfect lentil soup, fresh-baked bread, and almond-milk cappuccino. And it’s a good thing they don’t, because otherwise there would be no restaurants or cafes or coffee shops anywhere.’

The unrelenting loneliness:

This is everywhere, and lasting, and true. ’She is lost and alone and it does not matter.’ Or, ‘There are no words precise enough to describe how wide and empty the world is when you lose someone that matters to you as much as Penny did to me.’

Anyone who can do abject loneliness and dry humour in 300 pages has something pretty special. Bill Clegg is a literary agent, but nothing about this feels ‘Establishment’ or by rote: even the short pen-portraits feel well-drawn, and like they’re included for a reason. Everyone is connected, and necessary, and vital. This isn’t a long novel – it’s one of the shortest on the longlist, I think – but nothing is missing; it feels whole.

****

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