The "family" titles are where I decided to begin my reading for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, and Did You Ever Have a Family first because, I must admit, I was suspicious of how this title landed in the longlist of thirteen. The New York Times article back in January was the first I heard of it.
"The literary agent Bill Clegg is renowned in the publishing world as a ruthless negotiator who routinely wrings fat six- and seven-figure advances out of editors for experimental debut novels from unknown authors."
And he wrote two successful memoirs so one might expect his first fiction effort to be an attractive possibility for publishers. It is, in fact, launching a new literary fiction imprint, Scout Press, an offshoot of Gallery Books.
“We’re going to have a different voice,” Ms. Bergstrom said of her ambitions for the imprint. “Because Bill’s book was the impetus for the imprint, it’s also the epitome of what we want to publish. It’s literary but very accessible, not precious, not fussy, not esoteric.”
That statement also made me curious about how this novel would read. "Literary fiction" is such a broad genre descriptor. The qualifiers employed in Bergstrom's statement struck me as a wee bit defensive. And then months later, prior to publication dates in both the US and UK, with just a little whispering about the novel, it shows up in one of the coveted thirteen spots of the Man Booker Prize longlist. Hmm.
So I read it. All in one sitting. And the novel is much more than the familiar blurb descriptions of loss and forgiveness and hope might lead one to believe. Words such as "completely devastated" and "shocking" seem ill-chosen about a work so quiet, constructed of so much interior monologue, and revelations of the unspoken coming from others and not the subjects themselves. Nothing is over-dramatized here as I feared might be possible in a novel about a woman that loses all those closest to her in a gas explosion in her home as she watches from the back lawn. In the early hours of the morning on her daughter's wedding day.
I was drawn in by the ways in which those left behind piece themselves back together by placing themselves more honestly in the context of their relationships with those lost. Processes that slowly resolve in simple expressions of both weakness and love. There were moments where certain plot conveniences were employed that I found disappointing, but this was a solid read.
My remarks for all of the longlist books will be brief and general like this for two reasons - I have thirteen books to read in just a few weeks and I want the details to play out in later discussions with the other four ladies reading. And it would be nice to keep you guessing a little about which books will land on our shortlist in September.