Houses, as any plumber will testify, do sometimes blow up in gas explosions, destroying their contents and inhabitants, but would that really happen on the night before a wedding in a swanky house in Connecticut, killing daughter, daughter’s fiancé and owner’s lover? It seems too good to be true —the perfect big bang to set a novel in motion — and it made me distrustful from the start. It’s bad enough for a fictional weirdo to engineer such a disaster, but it’s worse for a novelist to engineer one, just so he can crack open a cast of characters’ sorrowful interior monologues and keep them going for a novel’s length.
Did You Ever Have a Family is a strange book: a psychological thriller that intrigues rather than thrills. The author, Bill Clegg of the Clegg Agency in New York, is a high-powered literary agent who has written powerfully about his past drug addictions (Ninety Days and Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man). This, his debut novel, was longlisted for the Booker Prize before being published. It ticks so many boxes: male literary agent writes literary thriller with women as main characters; characters are drawn from across the class, colour and sexuality spectrum; there’s hardly any spoken dialogue, and the few brief snatches are in trendy italics rather than quotes; chapters are written from the points of view of different characters (sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third), creating a patchwork of interior voices ranging from desolate mother to the man from the wedding-catering firm who still hasn’t been paid, and you’re not sure who to trust. And (big box-tick, for me too) a great deal of the action takes place in the Moonstone Motel in Moclips, Washington State. Motels always draw you in, with their cool, filmic, drive-in, low-lit, isolated moodiness, and depressed people sitting on their beds in the daytime.
What did happen on the night before the wedding? Silas, a young druggy part-time gardener, cycled back to the house to retrieve a knapsack full of the drugs he was craving. He overheard June (the 53-year-old mother of the bride) and Luke (her 30-year-old black lover, son of Lydia, the other main character) having a row about whether or not they should get married. He also heard a strange ticking sound coming from the stove.
I just couldn’t believe in that gas explosion, and nor, I think, could the author, quite. Half a family is wiped out in it, and the characters left behind grieve in pools of meditating solitude, but Clegg didn’t quite make me care about them. They seemed rather cold — but perhaps grief makes us cold. As I took notes, trying to keep up with the twists of the plot, I kept writing things like: ‘Really weird Lydia section. First she’s followed by Silas, then gets to her apartment and a woman with a baby comes and slaps her across the face and accuses her of being part of a scam and she instantly gives back $750.’ And: ‘Really weird June section in which she (a) gets a flat tyre and it’s mended by a kind, bearded stranger and (b) relives the evening before Will and Lolly’s wedding when Lolly asked Luke if he was going to marry June and Luke explained that he’d asked and she’d said no.’ I couldn’t help being aware of the author at his screen, thinking of events to make happen that would push the plot along while illustrating a character’s inner anguish and dripping out the truth.
The interior monologues are well done on the whole, but it’s not a good idea, while inside someone’s thoughts, to slip in information such as:
The cottage was on the other side of Wells, the same small town in Litchfield County, CT, where her house had been, where she’d come on weekends for 19 years and had been living full-time for three.
June’s thoughts would not be providing us with such facts, useful though they are.
The novel’s desolate atmosphere grows on you, subtly, and the alternating interior voices keep you reading, if only in the hope of finding out what that ticking noise was, and who did what about it.