Monday, August 31, 2015


Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family will shoot hundreds of tiny arrows into your heart, then take advantage of the breaches to crush it to a pulp. A tightly-written, multiple-perspective, continuous rabbit-puncher of a novel, Family is about connections (family and otherwise), burdens, guilt, loss, secrets, misconceptions, judgments, betrayal, love, sacrifice, grief, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

The tragedy around which Family revolves has already occurred as the curtain opens. While it's the most immediate and in many respects the "largest" tragedy (as if such events even bend to a standard of measurement), it's merely one in a continual line of tragic events, self-imposed and otherwise, that has peppered the lives of those we meet and follow in the small resort town of Wells, Connecticut.

I'm not going to revisit the plot of Family any deeper than that. The book has had enough push you've likely heard something about it; if not it's easily found. I encourage you not to dig too deeply. Much of the impact, lovely and gut-wrenching alike, is in the story's natural unfolding. Just when I thought I was on semi-solid ground, I would come across a line that would take the air out of me yet again. I admit it, I got a little sweary, but they were swears of appreciation as well as emotional ruin. Clegg is a master at letting you hit bottom over and over again as he reveals the previous bottom to be false.

Family begins with "the tragedy," but the story is really in the before and after, which is spooled out ever so craftily by Clegg through at least ten different character voices. Some chapters are written in third person, some in first. Some characters are heard from on multiple occasions, others only once. But whether once or ten times, they each have a unique voice (no small feat) and a compelling piece of the story to tell.

Through the characters we learn all that led up to the tragedy and what becomes of the major players in its wake. It's the story of a town and multiple families, but for me its essence boils down to the story of two women, each plagued by the assumptions and misconceptions of others in their small town; each carrying the burdens of past decisions made and paths taken to protect themselves and/or their loved ones; each carrying a heavy weight, as women are wont to do, for the perceived sake of others:

The truth was something she had hidden or bent all her adult life, and she had suffered and caused others to suffer because of it. 

Over the course of the book, we discover who these people are right along with them, each one forever changed. They feel incredibly real and human as they travel varied roads to their changed existence. One of my favorite elements of Family was the wonderful slash heart-rending moment in each new character chapter when it became clear what connection the character had to the tragedy. Each one was another little arrow. Clegg mined my emotions like a right bastard, and it made me care all the more about his characters and their plights.

"Did you ever have a family?" The title inquiry is discussed brilliantly in the book, and while it's only a brief passage, it's also the backbone of the novel. Family: blessing and burden, sometimes more of one than the other. Yet still, it binds us. It's the basis for so many of our decisions, some of which reach through the years to kick us in the teeth via twists of fate and simply life itself.

Each of the characters is tragic in his or her own way, but one stood out for me above the rest. If you've read Family, I'd love to know who you found to be the most tragic figure (Uplifting Discussion Points 'R Us).

STREET SENSE:  No question about it: Did You Ever Have a Family is one of the best books I've read this year. It's not long at just shy of 300 pages, and there is no lull. Every moment seems tightly tied to the next and if you're not pulled in and sucked under by this one I'll be gobsmacked (I'm not sure I've ever used the word gobsmacked before; I rather like it).

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. Even if that part is coughing to death from cigarettes...[s]omeone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won't see coming will need you...And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day. Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way. I don't think we get to know why. It is, as Ben would say about most of what I used to worry about, none of my business.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover may not seem spectacular - plain image, singular color palette, plain font, nothing fancy - but it still caught my eye. Even in its plainness, it evokes emotion. The well-worn cover and thumbed pages of the book in the image are, to a reader, the most irresistible invitation, are they not? To a reader this cover frankly screams that there's something of great substance within, something worthy of those dog-eared pages. Not fancy, no bells and whistles, but timeless and epic and worth going through. I love that the image is carried over the entirety of the cover - front, spine, and back. This is a cover win.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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