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

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.

The book’s success derives less from any individually overwhelming moment than its strength of construction, the author’s skill in drawing out a filament of molten narrative, and twisting it as it cools to form a satisfying pattern. June Reid and Lydia Morey have had very different experiences of the small town in which they became friends. The small town is routinely used in American literature as a model of society at large, the world on a human scale, but Wells, Connecticut can hardly perform that function. It can’t be a microcosm when it is effectively a colony. The locals have had their town bought up around them. On the first page 15-year-old Silas is described as having a job ‘yanking weeds from flowerbeds and patios for rich New Yorkers’. He’s not an exemplary employee, as he is stoned most of the time, but that’s not the point. As Edith the florist puts it, ‘the weekenders from the city not only take the best houses, views, food and, yes, flowers our little town has to offer, but they take the best of us, too.’ The colonists can’t be expected to put up their own trees before Christmas, or to dispose of them afterwards. ‘We can’t bear them,’ Edith says, ‘and yet we are borne by them. It makes for a testy pact that for the most part works’ – except when, for instance, a weekender eating at the Owl Inn wants to order a boutique cheese that no-one local has even heard of.

Lydia is used to the conversations that take place in such settings. ‘She has heard them fret about global warming, mercury levels in tuna, and pesticides choking the life out of the lettuce they stab with their forks but barely eat.’ It could be a scene out of Chiantishire, except that in Wells the locals don’t have the option of saying they don’t understand English. What Lydia finds hardest is to hear breezy accounts of these people’s children as they get ‘the early acceptances to impossible-to-get-into schools, the job offers from prestigious law firms, the promotions and awards’, since her own experience of motherhood is so different.

When Tama Janowitz’s book of stories Slaves of New York appeared in 1986 its theme of property relations determining social and personal lives seemed a fragile conceit, even a gimmick, until with the passing of time it moved from metaphor to self-evident truth, and one that applies at least as much to London as New York. In Did You Ever Have a Family the incomers (income being very much the point) can slip in and out of Wells as they like, while the inhabitants have very limited choices. There is a sort of social valve in place, maintained by the economic differential between the two categories of people, and giving the illusion that time moves at different speeds for them.

There’s a fine passage about the old beige telephone in the apartment Lydia rents, with names and phone numbers carved into the doorframe next to it. At least one of the names is familiar to her, as belonging to the man in charge of the town post office when she was a teenager who would call on her mother to drink peppermint schnapps and listen to country music. There’s also the name and number of Lydia’s ex-mother-in-law, Connie: ‘The Moreys must have had that same number since telephones were first installed in Litchfield County.’ This is the small-town connectedness, more than half oppressive in its operations, that city dwellers covet and obliterate.

Small towns aren’t always viewed as benign places in the American literary tradition. Winesburg, Ohio, in Sherwood Anderson’s book of stories, can hardly be accounted a community when the keynote of the book is isolation. Spoon River in Edgar Lee Masters’s book of poems is a place of hypocrisy and double-dealing where only the dead can tell the truth from their graves. Part of the enduring appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life for cinema and television audiences can be put down to its sense of how easy it is for a sustaining environment to become a corrosive one (an idea taken up without finesse in the Back to the Future sequels). Wells in Clegg’s novel is a place where everyone knows everything but highly selective judgments are made. Lydia’s husband is a violent bully, but this can be overlooked (you know what he’s like), while her adultery cannot. After Luke is born, she lives in a state of disgrace as absolute as Hester Prynne’s, ‘as banished as one can be in a town of fifteen hundred people, half of whom barely live here’. The father is black, though even the most diligent gossip seems unable to come up with a possible candidate. Lydia embraces the ostracism, as the only path to being free of her husband.

When Luke grows up and rejects Lydia in his turn, it’s June who puts herself out, first to win Lydia’s friendship and then help her reconcile with her son. June is both incomer and resident, so has a partial immunity from the town’s narrow values. After the tragedy, there is sympathy as well as suspicion, and it flows more towards June than Lydia. In an echo and inversion of Raymond Carver’s story ‘A Small, Good Thing’, where a baker wanting to be paid for a special cake pesters the parents of a child who has been knocked down by a car before his birthday party, the caterer providing a cake for Lolly and Will’s wedding (an elaborate Brazilian confection with coconut and oranges), as well as all the other food, doesn’t present a bill. This is quite a gesture, since the total is $22,000. The name of the firm, small and local, is Feast of Reason, and unsurprisingly there is some debate in-house about whether it is reasonable to waive such a large debt, with Rick (narrating this section) feeling he can’t behave otherwise, while his wife, Sandy, takes the opposite view. The cake itself is offered to the firemen who turned out to tackle the blaze, a piece of good manners that produces a whole flurry of ironies, since the Morey family ‘is the volunteer fire department’, and wouldn’t accept hospitality under any other circumstances from ‘the older gal from the city’ who got involved with ‘the ex-con, bastard black son of the town floozy’ who shares their name.

Part-way through the book Clegg takes risks with the underpinning of his narrative, seeming to neglect the tensile strength of the whole. Lydia starts getting phone calls from a man named Winton who tells her she has won the lottery though she hasn’t bought a ticket. He’s fairly obviously a con man, but Lydia can’t help responding to his approaches in however qualified a way, not answering the phone every time it rings (she has no other callers) but not altogether discouraging him. This plot strand makes the forlorn point that a bogus relationship can seem better than no relationship at all, but probably owes its existence to a technical problem: Clegg has painted himself into a corner. If Lydia isn’t presented in the first person, and if she is cut off from any sort of social life, how is her point of view to be kept alive? And if she has any confession to make about her past history, who is to receive it? At this point Winton seems to be even more of a lifeline for the author than for the character he is supposed to be ensnaring.

Meanwhile​ June has driven about as far west as it is possible to go, holing up in the Moonstone, a motel in Moclips, Washington, and for the first time the book’s balance shifts away from New England. Moclips shows signs of being offered rhetorically as the antidote to Wells, a place without manufactured intimacy, where boundaries are respected but trust can be built. The people may be abrupt, but they’re not phoney. The gay women who run the Moonstone had assumed that brusque Cissy, who didn’t so much apply for a job cleaning the rooms as let them know how much they should pay her and when she would start, disapproved of their relationship. Then when same-sex marriage was legalised in the state Cissy marched into the motel office to say: ‘It’s none of my business, but if you two decide to get legal, I happen to be an ordained minister thanks to the good old internet and I’d be happy to do the honours.’ When June checks into Room 6 at the Moonstone, under the name of Jane, as if in her depleted state she can only undertake the labour of changing a single letter, Cissy starts looking after her without a word. Their lives have come close to overlapping, with barely a single degree of separation between them, and June’s arrival in Moclips is not blind chance, but her state almost of fugue means that the two women meet as strangers. Meanwhile the owners of the motel console themselves with the knowledge that the mattress is of good quality, being new (the previous tenant ignited the last one – the motif of fire seems to accompany June – by smoking in bed).

This isn’t a generalised portrait of the superiority of pioneer manners, where kindness can be mistaken for its opposite since it wears such rough clothes. Cissy has lived a fiercely compartmentalised life, but achieves wholeness on her own terms. The day her husband, Ben, died, she put the house on the market and moved back in with her four sisters. Hadn’t she always said that she had them for talking and Ben for everything else? Her whole generation is contentedly divided, their father a broad-shouldered, green-eyed Quinault from the reservation (the ‘rez’) who wouldn’t think of marrying out, but was anyway fast-tracked by his parents into marriage, just to make sure he didn’t change his mind about that. He would come to lunch with his other family several times a week: ‘We’d line up like little girl soldiers awaiting inspection when he walked in. He’d give us kisses and butterscotch candies and ask about school and boys and wink before sitting down for a sandwich and coffee and cigarettes in the kitchen with Mom.’ The women as they grow up have so much respect for the ways of the rez that they keep their distance, and Cissy has to be urged to attend rites of passage where her presence would be no sort of intrusion.

It’s not the most usual complaint to be making of a novel written by a man, that it’s oversupplied with complex, convincing female characters – and none of them young, all of them in fact older than their author. Perhaps it’s the sense of narrative stasis in the middle stretch of the book, with barely ticking clockwork waiting to be rewound, that allows some of the Washington material to seem a little sentimental, artificially free of tension. The economic forces that compress and distort the Connecticut lives may not apply here, but other ones must – and there wouldn’t be the same harmony between cultures if, for instance, Cissy’s dad had a daughter on the rez and five sons in Moclips, lining up like soldiers for their candy.

Naturally there are West Coast ways of expressing feeling that are different from what goes on back east. It’s a good job that Cissy’s character has been strongly established before she starts saying things like ‘Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part’, so they become forgivable if slightly embarrassing – though Cissy is far too young to be channelling cracker-barrel wisdom in the Will Rogers tradition. On the other hand, it makes sense that Dale, father of the dead groom, and described (not by himself) as a hippy from Portland, should have a rapturously folksy take on family life: ‘Our kids were always great, better company even in their teens than most adults we know.’ He and his wife, Mimi, are careful with each other after their loss, not making too much conversation because ‘grief can sometimes get loud’ and it’s best not to talk over it. Their son himself seems a little too good to be true, but his parents understand that this is part of the attraction between him and Lolly (‘She was, we recognised immediately, someone who could hurt our son’). Wounds, after all, ‘can sing a beguiling song’, and Lolly has plenty. This part of the book allows, or requires, Clegg to explore grief uncontaminated with guilt, laid out as pure white on his emotional palette, the unmixed sorrow that is as hard to make compelling as the happiness that more famously ‘writes white’.

Counteracting the softened focus in the Washington sections of the book is a paradoxical element, strongly opposed to nostalgia. Houses that have contained and protected happy relationships are shed without hesitation or regret. Achieved identity is portable. Cissy wasted no time moving out of her marital home when Ben died, and the same is true of Will’s parents when the last child leaves home. In fact it’s the same house: Dale and Mimi assumed from Cissy’s unforthcoming manner that she bore a grudge against them for having moved in, when in fact she was just letting them get on with it. Dale and Mimi, elementary school teachers themselves, sell to a couple ‘newly married and planning a family, and what better fit could we have found’, who teach at college level – as if the house too deserved to make educational progress. This interplay between sentiment and hard-headedness in various characters is one of the satisfactions of the book. Its title is taken from a poem by Alan Shapiro (‘Song and Dance’), reproduced in part as its epigraph. Out of context it’s an opaque piece of work, the borrowed wording its most lucid moment. By removing the question mark in the poem, Clegg makes the formulation seem even more tentative and desolate.

In time his narrative mechanism starts up again, winding in the slack, and the book’s centre of gravity shifts back to the east, fulfilling the promise made earlier that ‘in a small town like ours things play out, circle back, end up.’ What remains with the reader after the dispelling of plot mystery is a surprised understanding of how many styles of relationship have been considered in the book, whether glancingly or head on. Not just the many marriages and partnerships, whether radiant, huddled or estranged, and the various permutations of the parent-child bond, acknowledged or denied, discarded or returned to, but also the elective affinities, outside the scope of desire or kinship, that lead to a mutual adoption no one else even needs to notice.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences