The web that has no single weaver
I read Bill Clegg’s Connecticut set, Booker longlisted, novel of love, life and loss, slowly and carefully , in bite sized chunks, stopping often to unexpectedly find tears flowing, but without having any of that annoying feeling of being crassly manipulated by the author by Hollywoodesque swelling chords of literary candyfloss.
As can be discovered in the blurb/back jacket synopsis, the subject of the book is small town, small lives ordinary people and their histories. What Clegg manages beautifully, by concentrating on making these small lives individual and authentic, is to open the particular so that it becomes universal.
June Reid, a woman in her 50s is cultured, artistic and independent. She is one of the New York state weekend retreat holiday homers who are attracted to buying property in small town, or rural areas, and, as their numbers grow, end up changing the nature of those attractive suburbs and regions, in ways which can be both destructive and regenerative. In the end, June becomes a permanent resident of Wells, the small town in Litchfield County, Connecticut where the major events of this novel take place.
The novel opens early in the morning on her daughter, Lolly’s wedding day. And opens to a terrible tragedy. A mysterious and violent fire, cause and perpetrator (if any) unknown, has utterly destroyed June’s house, and all who were sleeping within it – Lolly, her prospective husband Will, Lolly’s father – June and he had separated years earlier – and Luke, June’s much younger lover. So, all those whom June loved, her past, all of her present, and all of her future have vanished in flame and smoke.
Clegg unfolds his story not through the form of a linear narrative. Instead, each individual, whether peripheral to the story, for example, the son of the local woman who made Lolly and Will’s wedding cake, or more central, like Will’s father, have chapters within which their own past and present stories of relationship to June and her dead are laid out for us. The terrible events are seen through the filters of these characters, their natures, and sometimes their own histories.
The pleasing, initially separated into strands, structure is like the dynamic weaving of a web, more than it is `putting pieces together in a jigsaw’. Every strand of the web will be, in the end, woven into a central hub. The book is expressing the `six degrees of separation’ effect – any life can and will intersect, through connections, with millions of others. And, as Clegg unobtrusively reminds us, all have their own, rich, stories to tell. Some stories are shot through with dramatic tragedy – murder, rape, misogynistic violence, deep racism; others are quieter, smaller, the everyday occurrences of getting by, raising children, caring for parents, looking out for a neighbour – but all stories are given their value. In fact, in `Did You Ever Have A Family’ it is often the small moments of kindness which have to glimmer out as being of much greater endurance and persistence than the mindless – or, worse, the conscious, chosen acts of violence, cruelty and destruction. This is without a doubt a deeply tragic book – but also, one which is full of the small perennial shoots of empathy, compassion and affirmation which do insist on growing, even when all around, devastation and destruction are all which can be initially felt and seen. Perhaps those green shoots happen because of the devastation.
No one ever accused me of being a soft touch, but when something like what happened at June Reid’s that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it. So that’s what I did
The `who did it, who was responsible, and why’ – in other words, the thriller aspect to the story, is not the important focus of the book. Bill Clegg has not written a page turner in that way. Rather than the story of `find the perp’, it is the weaving of the interconnecting web which matters. The connections make everything possible, we all become responsible for everything, both the green growing and the smoking wasteland.
It’s a beautifully written book, a quiet book, whispering rather than shouting showily at the reader. I suspect that though a rightful long list, it probably lacks the daring, stylistic innovation or size of subject matter to go shortlist. Watch me be proved wrong!
I received this as an advanced review copy from Amazon Vine UK. It will published on 25th August.