Culture Watch: Book Review of Did You Ever Have a Family
Reviewed by Joan L. Cannon
DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY
By Bill Clegg © 2015
Published by Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.; Hardcover, 293 pp.
Few more freighted words exist than 'family'. Reading this book will broaden the definition exponentially. Our first instinct is to consider our blood relations and no one else when we hear that word. Bill Clegg will stretch his readers' understanding to consider the unavoidable (to those who are aware) closeness every human being can claim wherever events touch more than one.
The precipitating event of the lives intertwined like threads in primitive needlework is the tragedy on their wedding eve of a fatal explosion that destroys the young couple, sons and a lover. The bereavements leave behind survivors who are forever changed. Even the landscape where the exploded house once stood is forever wiped out.
The outcome is to force into the forefront of a number of lives the unnamed and only gradually perceived invisible connections between what might be called human hearts. With admirably spare and daring sentiment, Clegg slowly, organically fills in the group portrait that is the story.
As a sort of background obbligato is the small, insular town already undergoing changes dragging it into the twenty-first century.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the individuals whose existence has been altered beyond their own and others' comprehension. The plot deals with how these dislocations and agonies converge at last in a way that may redress mistakes of many kinds, whether from stubbornness, desire for revenge, ignorance, humiliation, pain, or blindness.
In prose that reminds us of those writers by whom words are not wasted nor effects burnished, reminiscent of Hemingway, sometimes as poetic as Fitzgerald, Clegg reveals each member if this group so vividly that a reader may have an eerie feeling that they are family. His voice is distinctly his own. Unflinching, but full of mood, the burden is unforgettable.
We see via many flashbacks how each arrived at the time of the tragedy that will link them all. Separate sections reveal how each reacts. The central character called June is devastated to the point of near-suicide. The others who are connected through her to one another manage to come to a point that links all the survivors to a hope of redemption.
The message suggests how closely the human family is interconnected by what each of us knows separately from another, by life events but not only experience, by sorrow and regret, all as unavoidable as the common cold for everyone, and how all is understood as if in a universal language beneath the surface of hearing.
This is one of the most rewarding reads one can hope for.
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