June Reid is the sole survivor when an explosion at her Connecticut home kills her entire family. In the circumstances, it feels slightly off to suggest that Did You Ever Have a Family, the Booker-longlisted debut novel by the American Bill Clegg, opens with a bang, but, there, I’ve said it, and it’s a gripping premise nevertheless. Slowly, through the perspectives of various interested parties (June; Lydia, the mother of June’s dead boyfriend; the local florist), Clegg reveals what caused the explosion and brings to light the skein of troubled relationships it so abruptly cuts through.
He is less concerned with the explosion than with the unresolved arguments or unspoken apologies it renders irrelevant. With our lives vulnerable to such cataclysmic upheavals, Clegg seems to say, we should concentrate on living and not waste time trying to explain things. ‘All we can do’, observes one character, ‘is play our parts and keep each other company.’
Clegg is a recovering user of crack cocaine and you sense in this argument the unquestioning creed of the former addict: identifying our moral failings and accepting our ultimate powerlessness. The lasting impression his book leaves, however, is of a blunt message belied by the deftness of the telling. At one point, Lydia interrupts a group of well-heeled women she overhears gossiping about the explosion: ‘comfortable women, cherished women. They look at her as if the forks in their hands have told them to be quiet.’
With that spry simile, Clegg catches these women in all their ignorance and pompous indignation, but he also extends them the tenderness of acknowledging the love in their lives: they are ‘cherished’, an acknowledgement reflecting all the more bitterly Lydia’s own solitude and grief.
Paula Shackleton, the heroine of Borderlines by Michela Wrong, is similarly haunted by regrets, her partner having been killed in a car crash just days after a huge row. Partly to atone for the obsession with her own career which she believes drove him away, Paula leaves her job with a starry New York law firm to help represent the African state of North Darrar in the arbitration of a border dispute with its much bigger neighbour, Darrar.
A distinguished foreign correspondent, Wrong is most compelling when dealing with the intrigues and dodges of the international legal system and the depressing context in which these play out. This is conceded late in the book by a slimy CIA operative: larger powers like the USA, regardless of the particular rights and wrongs and heedless of possible long-term consequences, fix things in a way ‘that suits our strategic interests’.
I’m not sure how convincingly Wrong’s tragic romance dovetails with the elements of her international thriller; simple soul that I am, I preferred the latter. Raymond Chandler warned that a ‘love interest nearly always weakens a mystery’. The point can hold for thrillers, even those in which that love interest is a dead one.
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels again takes up the subject of lost love. His narrator is Lev (Leon) Termen, real-life inventor of the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument with which the performer ‘conducts’ the piece: two antennae detect the distance of his hands, varying pitch and volume accordingly; the sounds produced are ethereal, and also vaguely silly. Lev narrates his life story, from studies in pre-Revolutionary Russia, through triumphant American sojourn and eventual Siberian exile, to Clara Rockmore, a thereminist married to another man and his ‘one true love’.
Despite the wretched pun in its title, Us Conductors is a rich, sensitive account of a particular historical milieu – or rather, of several – structured like the music of a theremin: episodes from Lev’s past are summoned up by him, not necessarily in chronological order, as voices from another world. This does mean that the tone, though never less than elegant, can feel a little too plaintive: ‘I had neglected my theremin for a very long time. I had not stared at its coils or wires, had not opened its circuitry to the light. It was early 1937 and war was stirring in Europe.’
Elsewhere, though, Lev’s self-absorption is nicely undercut. During a wonderfully awkward exchange with his abandoned wife that sees Lev launch into yet another theremin-related monologue, she twice interrupts: ‘yes’, she says, simply, and later, ‘you must get to see a lot of the country’. For all Michaels’s prevailing lyricism, it is in these instances of real feeling, palpable but unvoiced, that his writing works best.
As you might gather from the title, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter offers scant respite in terms of subject matter. Distrait Ted Hughes scholar Dad, widowed and left to care for his two young children, is visited by Crow, who, like a foul-mouthed Nurse Matilda, refuses to leave until they are better. Dad is writing a book on the subject of Ted Hughes’s Crow (Porter’s book, published, like Hughes’s poems, by Faber, consciously apes their typography); whether Crow is an actual bird, a projection, a figment of the family’s imagination or a mutual shorthand they use for their grief is unclear. It hardly matters.
Through a series of internal monologues describing the thoughts of Dad, Crow and the Boys that takes the form of reminiscences, letters and fables, occasionally collapsing into dialogue, we follow the family as they come to terms with grief. Crow, grief’s untamed voice, gleefully burlesquing accepted registers, insensitive, crude and pretentious, gets most of the best lines – a demon in one of his fables, for instance, is ‘tabloid-despicable’ – but the book is equally good during its calmer spells. The Boys describe ‘tak[ing] the piss’ out of Dad as the ‘best way of loving him’, beautifully capturing the mottled, contradictory nature of everyday, familiar love – the sort we tend to take for granted. An odd little book, and a quite brilliant one, it is, at moments like this, almost too poignant to read in public.