Literary agent and author Bill Clegg is no stranger to the best-seller list, whether from the agent’s side or the writer’s. His own success as an author came several years ago with the publication of his two memoirs, which dealt with addiction and his subsequent recovery. Now, he’s returned with his outstanding fiction debut, the beautiful and poignant Did You Ever Have a Family.
Long-listed for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, Clegg’s novel explores what we mean when we use the word “family” and how we come to understand and love and forgive one another even during times of unspeakable tragedy. The book opens with just such an event, a devastating house fire that kills four people, and the rest of it unspools around the resulting grief and mystery.
The story’s told through several different characters and their points of view, with each chapter in the book reflecting one character’s outlook. The overall picture builds slowly, the details fleshed out little by little. The effect keeps you hanging on, trying to piece together exactly what happened the night of the fire and who was responsible.
Central to the book is June Reid, who lost her daughter and her future son-in-law, as well as her ex-husband and her boyfriend, in the fire at her home the night before her daughter’s wedding was to take place. In her pain and her desire to get out of the small Connecticut town where this awful event happened, June drives west towards the Washington coast. She’s understandably numb and in shock, reliving her life in daydreams, questioning decisions made long ago, trying to understand the path that led to where she currently is, all alone in the world. We can feel her regret and her broken heart.
In addition to June, we also meet other characters trying to process the tragedy and trying to explain the inexplicable. June’s boyfriend’s mother figures prominently here, as do two innkeepers in coastal Washington state, in the tiny town where June eventually ends up. There’s Dale, the father of June’s would-be son-in-law, and Silas, a teenager who’d been working for June’s boyfriend. The dead, in a sense, come back to the life here, their lives and stories told by those who love and miss them, the empty spots they left made whole through memories. The characters’ crisscrossing backstories are captivating, underscoring how connected we all really are.
This book’s bittersweet, filled with such emotion and such life, in the face of tremendous pain. It will stick with you long after you’re finished.
(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/11/bookbiz-a-breathtaking-debut-novel-that-doesnt-disappoint/)