The critical reaction to Bill Clegg’s debut novel, Did You Ever Have A Family – not least, its inclusion on the Booker longlist – led me to one of those rare but uncomfortable moments when I felt I must have been handed the wrong proof copy. British broadsheets from The Independent to The Guardian have been falling over themselves to praise it, with literary heavyweights such as Anne Enright and Michael Cunningham adding accolades on the back cover. For me, Dwight Garner’s New York Times review offered both a welcome note of sanity and a brilliant image of the novel’s emotional failure: ‘It’s like watching someone stir plastic toads in an unlit caldron.’ ‘I fear I am being very rough on Mr. Clegg’s novel, rougher than I would like to be,’ Garner continues. ‘But the pocket where I generally put the nice things I want to say about a book is, in this instance, pretty empty.’
For me, it wasn’t that I didn’t have nice things to say about this intermittently engaging book. It was that this was precisely what they were – nice things – when I ought to be expressing much stronger emotions. Did You Ever Have a Family opens with a terrible tragedy. June Reid’s house burns down on the night of her daughter Lolly’s wedding, killing Lolly, her fiancé Will, June’s ex-husband, Adam, and her current partner, Luke. In the wake of this disaster, June flees her small Connecticut town, embarking on a haphazard road trip in a hopeless bid to escape her own grief. (Indeed, one of the most affecting moments in this novel is when June realises she has been carrying Lolly and Will’s honeymoon luggage in the trunk of her car all along.) Lydia Morey, Luke’s mother, chooses to stay put, facing her neighbours’ subtle accusations and insinuations about her son. What really hurts her is not the continuous gossip but June’s silence.
The omission that most surprised me in the professional reviews of this novel was any consideration of how poorly Clegg succeeds at voice. Did You Ever Have A Family is narrated by a cacophony of different people, some, seemingly randomly, in first person, some in third. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to distinguish most of his narrators. Here is Rebecca, a lesbian from Massachusetts who now works at a motel near the Pacific Ocean:
‘Some days she doesn’t come out. Some days you never see so much as a flicker of light behind the curtains. We’ve gotten used to her and it’s convenient that she pays cash for the room. She leaves a forty-dollar tip each week for Cissy, too, which has to be a record here at the Moonstone. Cissy, like us, is in her early fifties, maybe a bit older… Why this woman would want to stay here as long as she has is not our business, but of course I wonder.’
And here is George, a relatively wealthy, elderly black man who works in real estate:
‘My son Robert got married this year. He and his wife, Joy, called me from their honeymoon in Big Sur, California, to let me know they’d gone to city hall in Oakland to say their vows. Do I wish I’d been there? Of course I do. But it’s how they wanted to go about things and it’s their business. I was glad for the phone call. Joy is a strong woman and I think the two of them make sense together.’
While I think that too much can be made of the need to have every character sounding absolutely distinct – a novel needs some kind of continuous voice as well – the same bland narration from two characters from utterly different backgrounds is jarring. This problem is compounded by Clegg’s dull prose. He falls into numerous repetitive traps. For example, in his opening chapter, which is narrated by Silas, a bong-smoking fifteen-year-old, there are a string of sentences across the first few pages that all begin ‘He’: ‘He opens the window, snaps off the screen, and leans out, exhaling in one full, sloppy breath. He watches the smoke float before him, catch the wind, vanish. He feels the cool air against his face and neck and waits for the pot to work its magic.’ Lazy description – ‘The sky is pink and pale blue, and he traces a long trail of plane exhaust above him’ – and jarring vocabulary – ‘the drug beginning to lozenge his thoughts’ – underlines the staleness of the narration. This tone remains the same throughout the narrative, and contributes to the strangely limited impact of all its pain and grief, as even some of Clegg’s fans have noticed. The language seems muffled, weakened by its own persistent greyness.
Clegg is rather better on plot, although even here, he struggles to rise above the standard set by some fairly average thrillers. There are some interesting, if somewhat soapy, twists in Did You Ever Have a Family, and parts of the novel are genuinely gripping. The mystery at the heart of this book is of course: who burnt down June’s house? Due to some structural choices made by Clegg, the culprit was obvious to me by around the halfway point. I am usually dreadful at predicting plot twists, so this didn’t make me feel as if the plotting was especially complex, though the story rattles along well enough.
The upshot of all this is that I felt like I was reading an enjoyable, easy novel that had been praised far beyond what it deserved – hence the sharpness of some of my criticisms. And while I think this type of comparison has been a little overused of late, I couldn’t help thinking that Did You Ever Have A Family would never have received the acclaim it’s been offered had it been written by a woman. I don’t think it deserves its position on the Booker longlist, and I very much hope it isn’t shortlisted.
I received a free proof copy of this novel via the Amazon Vine Programme. It’s out now in the UK.