Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family is a novel of a family extinguished, literally. Deep in the night a house burns to the ground. In that house are June’s daughter, who is to be married in the morning, her fiancé; June’s lover, Luke; and June’s ex-husband. All are lost. June alone escapes.
What’s left after so terrible a tragedy? For June, grief that’s unimaginable and memories that seem unendurable. For Lydia, the mother of June’s lover, utter emptiness. June gets into her car and drives, not sure where she’s going or why. Lydia withdraws into an empty house. But life goes on and without intentionally reaching out, both women do make contact. June, who has inadvertently traced the arc of her daughter’s last trip, winds up touching family in a way she couldn’t have imagined. And Lydia, alone except for an anonymous caller and the shadow of a young man desperate for absolution, finds, through the two of them, the past she has tried not to see. Every contact the two women make leads them further out into the world—where, as it turns out, family can take surprising forms.
Bill Clegg’s first novel, which has been nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, is incandescent in more ways than one. He has a raw talent for shining light on the workings of people’s hearts and heads. And his skillful weaving of their stories into a skein of family also follows the thread of the fire’s explosion to the place where responsibility lies—a place that makes sense that is at once harsh and kind, of all the collective, connected pasts. One of the things I most love about this business is first-time novels that knock my socks off. This one wowed me barefoot.