Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Readers’ Room March Madness Challenge
I don’t know whether I liked this book. It gripped me, but not in the best way. It gripped me like a car crash story of misery would in the Family section of The Guardian.
In Did You Ever Have a Family, Clegg tells a story of loss and regret. It hooked me in, even though it felt like I was sitting on its edges observing. I didn’t feel close to any of the characters. It was the book version of a docudrama. It also made me think of Thirty Something, the 80s tv show about a bunch of yuppies and their not very difficult tribulations. The WASP character in particular. The town where the story starts out sounds horrible, full of narrow minded people who resent richer people coming in and changing the nature of their town, and who spread lies about people they grew up with who don’t live their lives in a way the rest of the town think they should. It put me in mind of people from English towns and villages where city types buy up properties as weekend homes. If I’ve learned anything from the book, it’s that New Englanders are as parochial as Old Englanders at times.
At first I struggled with some of the voices Clegg gave his characters. Those speaking in the first person felt clichéd initially, until the story was more established, and with it their personalities. Clegg was stronger when observing June and Lydia, and weakest when trying to inhabit the female characters Edith, Rebecca and Kelly. Rick and George are more convincing. Perhaps Clegg’s talents lie in observing women as characters, rather than writing as them.
Something about the tone of the novel made me think Clegg was a journalist. There was something about the first person speakers that made it seem they were being interviewed for an article or news report. Even the observed characters felt remote and incomplete at times. Although I felt more involved in their stories, I still felt like an observer, only seeing what was on the surface, not necessarily the truth.
I can see why it was long listed for the Booker Prize, and also why it didn’t make the short list. It is well written, a family saga with a difference. I just wish that it had made me care.