Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Ticks and crosses

<p class="p1"><span class="s1">Everyone in Bill Clegg’s psychological thriller Did You Ever Have a Family is touched by tragedy — except the reader</span></p>

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.

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