12 September 2015


Memoirist Clegg pens a great first novel. 
A terrific novel. The first fiction from memoirist, essayist, and literary agent, Bill Clegg, and before it published in September made the short list for the Booker Prize for literature. 

Deservedly. Although, in truth, “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng, reviewed here in August, is just as good. Both great reading, with similarities. One might dub these tales literary family mysteries/histories. Both take off from a tragic event. Both delve into the secrets and sorrows of a set of related characters. Both written in elegant prose. And both finales revealed in the last pages. 

The world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned. It can appear as a tall boy who smells like fish who pulls your braid one night in a bar and asks you to marry him. Or it can be a kid who shows up on your doorstep.

Ng was in everyone's head at once and wove their perspectives together. Clegg, however, alternates chapters from the perspective of several characters, some whose relationship to the core family is not apparent until much later in the novel. These intersecting lives form a mosaic that ultimately defines and decipher the tragedy faced by the main character, June, whose daughter and fiancĂ©, her former husband and her lover, die in a fire the night before the daughter’s wedding. No spoiler here, this event happens on the opening pages, and the how and why it happened is revealed slowly through various characters. Just as in Ng’s novel, the how and why is unraveled until at last we what happened gains clarity. 

This form of fiction is sometimes referred to as satellite fiction – the best of which in my mind is Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” and is the literary technique I used in “Colors of the Wheel.” An opportunity to weave individual sagas into the larger tapestry. Clegg uses this masterfully. And doesn't life work in just this way? A series of otherwise disconnected paths, and seemingly random moments, ultimately converge. In this case, tragically. With far-reaching ramifications. 

Clegg also uses June's profound grief to reveal her ambivalence about her past, ruminating on her perceived sins of omission and commission.

She wonders if Adam registered her ambivalence then and for the first time considers how those feelings might have set an early course for what would later play out in the marriage. … Still, deep down she knew it was more likely to fall apart than succeed. She knew, but she smothered that knowing, with the future that everyone in her life saw for them and that she could, through their eyes, occasionally see. 

June’s ensuing journey is the path to which all others lead, and especially poignant. I too am writing now about how we grieve. Not a new subject. Always good fodder for fiction. And Clegg handles this with tenderness and insight.

She has no one to call, no one to rush home to. But when has she? She reviews the few possibilities… None of these people were ever hers. They either belonged to someone else or had lives or lies that put them out of her reach, or should have. This is not news, but what surprises her, after being alone for so long, is that it’s only now that it feels unbearable.”

Another excellent new novel. And many more to come this fall, with a great line-up of writers publishing, including Salman Rushdie, Colum McCann and Margaret Atwood. Stay tuned.