Did You Ever Have a Family’ by Bill Clegg (2015) – 293 pages
Four people are killed in a house gas explosion including a couple who were to be married the following afternoon. This is the defining event in ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’, and the novel deals with how those who survived cope in the aftermath to this tragedy. ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ is a grief novel.
The story is told by multiple narrators each somehow connected to those who died. The mood is subdued reverie. There is no direct dialogue. Someone must have forgotten to tell the author that each of the various narrators must have a distinctive voice. As it is each sounds pretty much the same, their narration filled with muted hazy remembrance. The characters sound so much alike that it is difficult for the reader to tell them apart. Two of the main characters are Lydia and June, but I couldn’t tell one feature of their personality which would distinguish them.
The long sections of indistinguishable mournful reverie are only occasionally interrupted by a sparkling sentence like the following:
“She takes a long, late-day look at the town where she has lived her whole life, where there are no friends, no family, but where her feet are famous to the sidewalks.”
I suppose my opinion of ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ has been somewhat colored by my having previously read what I consider to be a much superior grief novel. That would be ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks which tells the story of a town dealing with a terrible school bus accident. That novel also used the multiple narrator method, but its telling was so simple and direct and heartfelt I never was confused about who was talking at any given time.
‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ is a much more subtle novel but unfortunately more confusing and less affecting. Perhaps a sign of the novel’s diffuseness is that its events are spread out to both coasts from Connecticut where the accident occurred to the state of Washington. The novel attempts to include side plots about racial injustice involving both blacks and Native Americans, but these are half-hearted at best.
However after about two hundred pages of listlessness, something near miraculous occurs. The story in ‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ actually starts to cohere, become involving. Perhaps this is because we readers have finally gotten to know a couple of the narrators well enough to care about and follow their account of events.