Sunday, May 29, 2016

Staff Review: Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have a Family, a debut novel by Bill Clegg, opens with a bang. Literally. A big one. In the scale of the whole wide world, it may not be a cataclysm, but in the more modest scale of family and community it's catastrophic. In an instant the novel's main character loses everyone and everything; she's rendered family-less in the blink of an eye, yet she must find a way to go on. What choice does she have, other than suicide?

By this point you may be thinking this book does not sound like a feel-good read and that you probably ought to avoid it. But that would be a mistake. I found it to be one of the most moving, most human, and ultimately most redemptive novels I've read this past year and I heartily recommend it.

After the opening big bang, Clegg beautifully and succinctly relates not only the incident's aftermath but also years of backstory -- the relationships and events -- that lead to this particular cast of doomed characters being together in one place on the incendiary day. The wider network of relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even service workers affected by the tragedy, closely or tangentially, is painstakingly introduced, person by person within their own chapters, their individual humanities brought to life in a series of exquisite scenes that move from the affluent Connecticut 'burbs of New York City through Montana and Idaho and on to the turbulent coast of the Pacific Northwest.

What is particularly impressive about this novel is the even-handed and compassionate way in which Clegg presents his characters, people of very different income and educational levels, racial backgrounds, sexual preferences, and social standing. The catastrophe at the core of the plot has wounded them all and in their raw vulnerability they slowly rise to the occasion, becoming more rather than less, reaching out to one another, and, in the end, forming new communities based not upon occupation, class, or local reputation, but upon more basic and authentic aspects of being human.

Before tackling fiction, Clegg, a literary agent, wrote two memoirs about his own devastating drug addiction; it seems his descent into the abyss and eventual restoration are serving him well in his fiction.

~Ann, Adult Services

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