“Pru asked if she was okay, and June answered with a question that seemed to Pru more of a comment on June’s struggle’s with Lolly: Did you ever have a family? Pru said she sounded completely wiped out, at wit’s end. She asked June if she wanted to walk back with her to the house, but she politely declined, saying she needed to be alone a while longer.
Pru told us that night that she’d never felt so grateful. That her answer to June’s question had been yes, but not as a commiseration, or an explanation of fatigue, as it seemed to be for June, but both as an acknowledgment of great fortune and a prayer of thanks. With Mike on the line from Tacoma, and Mimi and I huddled over her iPhone on speaker in the kitchen Pru whispered to us, Thank you. (Did you Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg)
I am not a brave reader. It is rare for me to read books that are sad, that have devastating plots, that leave me imprinted with the sorrow of other people. It is rare for me to read books that make my hands clench and muscles tense because I can’t handle my anxiety over what the characters are going through. Over the past few days however, I read and completed “Did you ever have a family?” by Bill Clegg and I absolutely loved it. The book is Clegg’s first novel and was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it.
The book is about June Reid, a woman who loses her entire family – her daughter Lolly, her future son in law Will, her boyfriend Luke, her ex-husband Adam – everyone, in a fire the morning of her daughter’s wedding. The fire destroys the house, the people inside and all of her belongings. As the reader, you see the fire from the window of Silas, a teenager who is working for Luke’s landscaping business in the first few pages of the novel. The rest of the book is about the aftermath of the fire, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, (with some characters having multiple chapters) who share their story that connects them to this fire. From seeing the fire from a distance, we move closer and closer towards it and learn about each person and family this fire has touched and burnt. The novel plays with timelines and we go backwards, forwards and sideways because the novel asks us to follow characters instead of sequential events. This style of storytelling leads to a dazzling reading experience, and reading this novel was like seeing one piece of a larger image first from afar and then both coming closer and seeing how big and detailed the overall tapestry of this story is at the same time. We learn about Luke’s mother Lydia and their relationship and the story of her life, we learn about Will and his parents Mimi and Dale, we learn about Adam and June’s marriage, we learn about Luke’s father and the story of his life and how he met Lydia, we learn about the Rebecca and Kelly, the couple who own the Moonstone hotel where June stays when she flees her town after the funeral, we learn about Cissy, who cleans the rooms at the Moonstone and about her own family and her relationship with June. We learn about so many different complex families and their rich detailed worlds, and we learn how each family has love and disappointment, secrets and heartbreak. As the stories of each character are told, we not only see how each person connects with the pain of others, we also see how the pain and joys of each family is unique as well. In telling the story of families this book addresses issues of discrimination, prejudice, class, race, sexuality, and First Nations people, and in its side stories, it touches discussions of Rachel Corrie and Palestine resistance to letting go of your kids when they go to university to loneliness and the gossip of small towns among other topics.
This novel is a worthwhile read because it is beautifully written and because this book changes how the pieces of you fit together. It helps you become a more empathetic person, it teaches you patience as you gradually learn about the lives of these remarkable characters, it teaches you gratitude, and it teaches you forgiveness. Most of all, it is a book that is filled with hope, resilience and strength, and that helps you build a stronger family through your reading. It is my favourite type of book; a book that helps you grow and learn and become better, and it is definitely one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2016.