Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

It’s hard to find the words to summarize this beautifully crafted novel.  It’s a harrowing story, a heart-breaking story, a story that makes one shake their head to tamper down the bubbling and repeating question of Why? Why? Why?  Even though it’s fiction – I still wanted to be able to change the events, to reduce the tragedy, to save well-drawn characters from senseless deaths.

But the tragedy has already occurred when the novel begins.  A boy wakes up, tokes from a bong and whispers to himself: “I’m okay. Everything’s okay.  Nothing’s happened.” But something harrowing has indeed happened.  We jump forward to watch as the lone survivor of a house fire takes off driving aimlessly without a driver’s license, belongings or an actual destination.  It’s only later that we learn that the house fire occurred the night before her daughter’s wedding.  Her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her boyfriend and her ex-husband all perished in the fire.

Clegg is a magnificent story-teller.  In the beginning, I was frustrated with all the shifting voices and the dancing around the central action of the story. But as I continued reading, I marveled at how the pieces fit together and came to completely trust Clegg for the scattershot way he scripted the novel.  I was enthralled by the way the plot moved both forwards and backwards.  The pacing of the book is hard to truly capture. There isn’t a great deal of forward movement for each character. Instead we get shifting voices filling us in on vital elements of the back story.  Months pass quickly for certain characters –June, Lydia—because they are stuck in grief and the events of their lives have completely slowed down.  Eventually the book culminates with a beautiful crescendo. The last voice to speak may surprise some but the book delivers a clear point: it isn’t always the people most connected to a tragedy who can explain it.

While reading I couldn’t help but think of the Christmas fire in Connecticut in which a woman lost her three daughters and her parents.  I also thought about the tremendous memoir Wave written by a woman who lost her parents, her husband and her children in the tsunami.  How can one possibly go on in the face of so much loss?  Clegg successfully captures this breaking wave of catastrophic grief with great authenticity.  It’s hard to grapple with such a large tragedy and yet the reader easily moves forward wanting to discover how each chapter can possibly end and how the entire story will wrap up.

I found myself ruminating over Bill Clegg’s ability to characterize people. For example, I stopped to cherish and linger over a father’s description of his son’s daughter-in-law.

“Who knows what draws people together? Lolly seemed unformed to us. Young. She was colorful and chatty, full of stories, but had few questions. She drew you in, but once you were there, you sensed she could vanish without warning.  She had a way of telling two stories at once, looking behind you when she spoke.  She seemed like someone who covered her bases, kept several balls in the air so she always knew she would have at least one in hand at the end of the day. She was clever, but not careful…”

Clegg’s writing is simple, and direct but also evocative and lyrical. At multiple points, I stopped to actually jot down his writing. For example, I took notes on the following passage in a June chapter: “To be given a glimpse now was a bitter miracle, a ghostly caress that left more regret than solace.” (pg. 203)

I know I will think about this haunting and lyrical novel for a long time.

No comments:

Post a Comment