Life after death: Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family

Bill Clegg’s first novel – longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – is a reminder that anything could happen to any of us, at any time.

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Bill Clegg’s first novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a reminder that anything could happen to any of us, at any time. It may sound melodramatic to say that disaster lurks around every corner but it’s true. Who doesn’t read about a motorway crash or a house fire and think, “There but for the grace of God”?

Did You Ever Have a Family centres on the recovery of that grace. The book begins at the bottom of an emotional pit. On the night before a wedding in Connecticut, a gas explosion kills the bride, Lolly; her fiancé, Will; her father, Adam; and her mother’s boyfriend, Luke. Only Lolly’s mother, June, escapes the fire that destroys her house and her whole life. Many more lives are touched by this destruction as the tendrils of family and friendship wind out into the world. The novel is narrated by a sequence of voices, moving fluidly between the first and the third person.

There is Lydia, Luke’s mother. Luke’s birth was the result of a brief affair that ended her marriage; the two had been estranged and only recently reunited. There is Dale, Will’s father, who saw his son grow up to be a man he admired and who was puzzled by his love for Lolly but confident in Will’s ability to choose the life he wanted. And there are voices that can seem, at first, peripheral – Silas, a local boy; Rebecca, a hotel owner – but are woven skilfully into the shape of the narrative. Here is a series of families, each with the ordinary complications that make for extraordinary lives.

All these stories revolve around June’s. After disaster strikes, after the funerals and after weeks of paralysed stillness, she drives away, out towards the west and Washington State and a small hotel that overlooks the Pacific. The reader doesn’t discover the reason for her destination until well into the book, but one of the strengths of this fine novel is the elegant balance that it strikes ­between reason and unreason, between coincidence and choice.

Clegg’s first two books – Portrait of an ­Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days – were memoirs. A literary agent in New York, he charted his descent into addiction and debt and the path to his recovery. Those books were shocking and unsensational, qualities carried over into his fiction. Close observation of emotion turns the smallest moments into drama. When Lydia encounters June on the morning that the town discovers the extent of the destruction, she finds her friend squatting next to the mailbox, the wreck of her house behind her. Lydia moves towards June but is sent away with a flick of her wrist: “the way you wave away an unwanted animal, or a beggar . . . Those flicking, flapping fingers still jump before her eyes like a black flag snapping in the wind, commemorating all that was over.”

The novel is full of these little flashes of insight and tragedy is always leavened by glimpses of the characters’ past lives, seemingly trivial recollections that join together to make moving portraits. As Cissy, who works at the Moonstone, that hotel at the edge of a continent, considers: “The world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned.”

Horror is followed by kindness, gifts of sympathy that offer the possibility of healing. When June checks into the Moonstone, she simply stays there and the two women who run the place know well enough not to ask any questions. Cissy brings June a Thermos flask every day. When we finally learn the contents of this Thermos, it feels like a revelation, which is a measure of the author’s skill.

Towards the end of the novel, Lydia reflects that she understands “bad choices made from fear, acted on out of a misguided sense of survival”. Clegg’s first two books showed that he does, too. Now he has transferred that understanding into a sad yet hopeful novel built from both suffering and kindness. The redemption offered here is hard-earned.

“Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part,” Cissy says. A useful reminder to carry forward into the future.

“Did You Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg is published by Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £12.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles