Memoirist and literary agent Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man) has now conquered the world of literary fiction with his searing debut, Did You Ever Have a Family. As a boy “wakes to the sound of sirens,” we learn that an explosion has taken the life of a bride and groom just before their wedding day. Clegg then slowly, intricately reveals the wider ramifications of this unthinkable tragedy through the eyes of more than a dozen characters. The title (from an Alan Shapiro poem) most deeply refers to June Reid, who lost the most in the explosion that fateful day. But Clegg’s wide lens compels the reader to think deeply about what a family is and how they influence us, for better or worse.
The pain in this novel is raw and visceral, though there are brilliant, subtle touches as well. In one scene, a mother and son have a talk they should have had a long time ago. Across the street, “two teenage boys scrape paint from the house,” a revealing image of painstakingly stripping away the past. Ultimately, readers of Did You Ever Have a Family will be reminded of both Faulkner (in Clegg’s dark material and kaleidoscopic storytelling) and Colum McCann (in the genuine search for meaning or redemption amid tragedy).
Clegg’s novel is not for every reader. In addition to the bleak events, the flashbacks and lack of dialogue can become a bit wearisome. Nevertheless, Clegg has produced an insightful portrait of adversity. The characters, by and large, are memorable and their struggles genuine. One of Clegg’s guilt-wracked characters describes the reflection of the night sky on a lake as “both ominous and beautiful.” The same can be said of Did You Ever Have a Family.