I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
“The world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned.”
Did You Ever Have A Family isn’t the type of book I read often (I tend to avoid reading too many potential tearjerkers) but it drew my attention when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, and I was pleased to get approved for a review copy. I don’t think it’ll be for everyone – it’s a very contemplative, reflective novel with little plot to speak of for large chunks of the story, but it has a lot going for it too.
June has lost everyone dear to her – her daughter, boyfriend and even her ex-husband – in a tragic fire which engulfs her house on the night before her daughter Lolly’s wedding. The only family member not in the house at the time, June is forced to stand outside and watch as everything she knows is taken away from her. Soon after the funeral, she takes an impulsive road trip, away from her small Connecticut town and everything she knows.
“Now can you imagine watching everyone you love just disappear? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
That synopsis, and the official synopsis given for the book, would make you think that this book is all about June. It’s really not. From chapter to chapter, Clegg offers insights into the minds of different, seemingly unrelated characters – and near the beginning of the novel I have to admit that this technique made it all feel a little disjointed. It’s quite a fragmented narrative, and there’s a lot of background into characters whose links to the main event seem tenuous at best. We hear from the 15-year-old ‘pothead’ who tended the garden, the son of the cake maker and many more but if you’re feeling disconcerted, hang on in there. Because as each of these individual stories unravels Clegg creates a beautiful mosaic of emotions, laying each of his complex characters’ bare for the reader’s judgement, flaws and all. They all feel so real, and each and every one of them has been affected by the tragic events.
I expected to cry reading this novel, and I didn’t. Instead, there’s a sense of quiet intrigue running through it; something that compelled me to keep reading despite the depressing subject matter and the fact that I wasn’t sure where it was going. It’s difficult to describe, but I’m glad I kept going, because I was rewarded with hope. I loved the manner with which Clegg tied together his loose ends, bringing every little vignette into focus for just a moment, to reveal the bigger picture. The book left me with a strong sense that this wasn’t the end, that infact this was just the beginning for some of the characters, and the story was just a snapshot of their lives that I’d been allowed to peer into. The characters felt so authentic I felt sure that they’d go on to live their lives beyond the final pages of the novel – and there was optimism in their futures.