Early on the morning before a wedding in rural Connecticut, an explosion takes the lives of four members of the wedding party. In Bill Clegg's gripping and multilayered novel, the surviving family members fly apart like so much collateral wreckage, isolated in silence and distance from one another, trying to make sense of the world's cruel randomness.
Clegg organizes his work into many short chapters and allows 11 of his characters to narrate. "Did You Ever Have a Family" has a distinct Faulknerian atmosphere as the truth of what has taken place emerges slowly and collaboratively. While the town is aswirl with nasty-minded rumors, several of the most directly affected characters are locked in private grief. June, the mother of the deceased bride, flees town minutes after the funeral in a sad effort to reconnect with her daughter. Lydia, a retired house cleaner who has lost a son in the fire, goes into internal exile — hiding in her small apartment.
Edith, who describes herself as an "old, bitter spinster," frames the town's residents as members of a servant class, "too tired, not to mention too busy performing their roles as jolly country folk on the weekends for the pampered and demanding New Yorkers, spending every last drop of civility and patience on these strangers with none left over for their wives and husbands." Yet what we find in the cleaners, caterers and florists are dignity and resilience.
Clegg's characters are unsure of themselves and beaten up by money woes and the weight of town opinion. Nevertheless, they step forward to create strands of compassion. Perhaps the greatest act of bravery in the novel is performed by the unlikeliest character: a 15-year-old yard worker, his head full of sexual fantasies and THC, who has just stumbled and broken his bong.
As the characters navigate the channels of loss, expressing regret for missed opportunities, Clegg moves the action in the direction of reconciliation and solace. During the final third of the novel, each of the personal accounts packs a stronger punch than the one before it; each new narrative recasts what we have read in a startling way. It feels as though the dim view of events that has been offered to us has — through a succession of revelations — slowly come into focus and what we now see is three-dimensional. "Family" is a quiet and beautifully written novel that will keep readers turning the pages.
It is finally the quietest narrator of all, a widowed motel cleaner living with her sisters, whose plain words seem to capture the novel's spirit of uplift: "All we can do is play our part and keep each other company."
There is no resignation here. Rather, Clegg seems to say, it is the courage to intervene in another's life that defines the notion of family.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.