Book Review: Did You Ever Have a Family – Bill Clegg

Posted November 30, 2015 in Print

NCH – 25 sep-3 oct-22 Desktop

Did You Ever Have a Family

Bill Clegg

[Jonathan Cape]


Did You Ever Have a Family is the kind of novel you want to love. Witness its beautifully illustrated cover depicting a flaming country house against a smoke-filled orange sky. Does it not appear stark and poignant, perhaps wistfully mournful? Notice the lack of a question mark in the title question. Does that not seem like the kind of bold, purposeful choice only an assured writer would make? Read the rave reviews describing it as ‘an elegiac study of small-town Connecticut life in the aftermath of tragedy’. Are you not expecting silently grieving mothers and satisfyingly melancholy, lyrical descriptions of a snowy New England town, just the thing for a cold winter evening?

Well, be careful what you wish for. The novel is a little too cosily aligned with its readers’ expectations. When I say this is the kind of book literary magazines would call ‘quietly powerful’, I do not mean it in a kind way. In fact, one gets the impression that, as Clegg was putting pen to paper, he was already patting himself on the back, *anticipating* the words ‘quietly powerful’. The book centres on June Reid, who loses her entire family in a fire, but it also follows an array of townies whose relevance to the main plot ranges from tangential to nonexistent. Dialogue is sparse. Basically, the entire volume consists of sentences such as these: ‘She looked at the light brick buildings, the buses, the American flag dangling from a white pole. Nothing was familiar.’ and ‘The cool air against her neck feels good. She walks quickly and wipes the sweat from her forehead.’

Small, private epiphanies abound: ‘We never pay attention to the right things, she thinks.’ ‘I’m here, she thinks, and relaxes again into the mattress.’ ‘The birds see everything, she thinks.’ All the while, one frustrated reader cannot help but *think* that someone ought to stop thinking and instead say or do something in this novel, for crying out loud.

Words: Eliza A. Kalfa


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