Room 6 at the Moonstone

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
    Cape, 293 pp, £12.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 224 10235 3

Bill Clegg’s novel starts with a bang, when an explosion destroys a house in a small Connecticut town and kills four people just before a wedding. The casualties are the bride and groom, the bride’s father and Luke, the young boyfriend of the bride’s mother – who had been a scandalous match for glamorous June in the eyes of the town, and not just by reason of his youth. The tragedy seems especially cruel since the family had started to come together after a long run of estrangements. Lolly, the bride-to-be who didn’t live to be a bride, had agreed to have the reception at her mother’s house, and although there was some dispute earlier in the day about whether her father, Adam, would be allowed by June to stay there as a house guest, it was resolved in favour of a qualified welcome. But hours later everything turned to ash and ruin. The absoluteness of the blast makes it a disaster with some of the character of an apotheosis, as if these people had been raptured into the sky rather than blown to bits. The explosion is somehow both in time and outside it, as in Cornelia Parker’s installation Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, in which the shards of a shed are caught in the eternal present of detonation, though nothing could be less avant-garde than Clegg’s scrupulous dovetailing of voice and perspective.

The site of the blast was bulldozed soon after on the orders of the county fire chief ‘to prevent accidents’, which could suggest either a cover-up, since there is now nothing for the state authorities to investigate, or just civic anxiety – the wish to head off a lawsuit. This could easily be a thriller’s starting point, and Clegg doesn’t work too hard to erase the dark question mark looming over the explosion. The bare description of the circumstances – ‘the old stove, gas leaking through the night and filling, like liquid, the first floor of the house’ – doesn’t rule out the possibility of an accident but also suggests the presence of volatile resentments waiting to be sparked. And why wasn’t June Reid in her house at the time of the explosion, still early in the morning? Of course property owners aren’t under house arrest, but in a small town gossip is a dog that is never chained up.

Soon after the funerals June gets in her car and drives away, with no destination in mind at first. There’s nothing to stop her, since she’s not from Wells originally and is financially independent. Others of the bereaved don’t have the option of escape, and so Lydia Morey, mother of the controversial Luke, relapses into the state of disgrace that has become almost her life’s work. The irony, well managed as it emerges in the narrative, is that only recently, and as a result of June’s friendship, offered with stubborn warmth, had Lydia learned to start to trust the world again, and made some sort of new start with her son. Both women, in their fifties, have been offered a second chance, and both have seen it snatched away.

The two women establish themselves only gradually as the key characters of the story: the novel is given over to more than a dozen narrators, direct or indirect, and it’s only after seventy pages that one of those narrators recurs, beginning the process that turns a tangle of threads into a complicated web. June and Lydia’s experiences are conveyed in free indirect style, a shrewd choice since it lowers the emotional temperature while also allowing the element of thriller suspense, never quite abandoned, to survive in the corners of the point of view. It’s possible that either or both of these women, June with her ‘Glinda the Good Witch vibe’ and Lydia the ‘small-town Elizabeth Taylor’, harbours guilty secrets somewhere the narrator’s torch doesn’t reach.

The first-person narrators tend to be further, in emotional terms, from the blast, though the father of the groom-who-never-was puts in an appearance some way into the book. There’s a little awkwardness in the managing of these testimonies, with narrators referring to age (‘my old, wrinkled hands’) or ethnicity (a man mentioning that his son and daughter-in-law ‘are both journalists, both busy, both black’), more for the reader’s benefit, surely, than their own. As the author of a pair of autobiographical narratives, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man (2010) and Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery (2013), Clegg must be very familiar with the ‘I’ key on his computer, but a novelistic first-person is a different instrument and perhaps needs getting used to.

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