Let me say up front: a terrific novel. The first fiction from memoirist, essayist, and literary agent, Bill Clegg, and before it has even published [Sept. 15] is on the short list for the Booker Prize for English literature. Wow.
Deservedly. Although, in truth, “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng, reviewed here in August, is just as good. Both fabulous fictions, with similarities. One might dub them literary family mysteries/histories. Both take off from a tragic event. Both delve into the secrets and sorrows of a set of related characters. Both are written in elegant prose.
“The world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned. It can appear as a tall boy who smells like fish who pulls your braid one night in a bar and asks you to marry him. Or it can be a kid who shows up on your doorstep.”
Clegg, however, alternates chapters from the perspective of many characters, some whose relationship to the core family is not apparent. He weaves this mosaic together as more than background to the death of a few members of one family. These intersecting lives ultimately define and decipher the tragedy faced by the main character, June, whose daughter and fiancé, and June’s lover, die in a fire the night before the daughter’s wedding. No spoiler here, this event happens on the opening pages, and the how and why it happened is revealed through the various chapters and characters. Just as in Ng’s novel the how and why is unraveled until at last we what happened gains clarity.
This form of fiction is sometimes referred to as satellite fiction – the best of which in my mind is Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” and is the literary technique I used in “Colors of the Wheel.” An opportunity to weave intimate stories into the larger tapestry. Clegg uses this masterfully. Life works in just this way. A series of otherwise disconnected lives, and seemingly random moments, ultimately converge. In this case, tragically.
June’s ensuing journey is the path to which all others lead, and especially poignant. I too am writing now about how we grieve. Not a new subject. Always good fodder for fiction. And Clegg handles this with tenderness and insight.
“She has no one to call, no one to rush home to. But when has she? She reviews the few possibilities … None of these people were ever hers. They either belonged to someone else or had lives or lies that put them out of her reach, or should have. This is not news, but what surprises her, after being alone for so long, is that it’s only now that it feels unbearable.”
“Did You Ever Have a Family” is another excellent new novel, and many more are set to come this fall, with a great line-up of writers publishing, including Salman Rushdie, Colum McCann and Margaret Atwood. Stay tuned.
“Did You Ever Have a Family” is available mid-September in hardcover at Laguna Beach Books and of course as an e-book. Happy reading.