Friday Reads – Did You Ever Have a Family and the Illuminations

So yesterday’s Throwback Thursdays blog didn’t happen due to having too much work to do so I decided to get this one out there early before the same thing happens!

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced this week and the following made the list:

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James (review to come)
Satin Island – Tom McCarthy (review to come)
The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma (review to come)
The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Sahota (review to come)
A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler (reviewed briefly here)
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (review here)

Also in relation to A Little Life – the author did an open discussion at Foyles and the wonderful Writes of Woman blog wrote up the discussion here. It’s fascinating and well worth a read.

I finished the last book of the longlist yesterday so have now read all of them – and am I surprised at all by the shortlist? Not really. I was convinced A Brief History, Satin Island and A Little Life would make it. I was really hoping Did You Ever Have a Family (reviewed below) would make it, perhaps instead of the Runaways or The Fishermen. But overall, for what its worth, I think its a pretty good shortlist! So, so far I have done pretty well with the reading of the books but am quite behind with the blogging about them – so, without further ado – onto the rest of the reviews.

I’ve lumped Did You Ever Have a Family and The Illuminations together into a blogpost as they both concern family – what is a family? What does familial love mean? How do we relate to each other as families? But, despite the over-arching similarity in their theme, these are two very different books and I thought Did You Ever Have a Family was by far the best. Yes, I enjoyed it more, but I also think it was just the better written book. So I’ll start with that one, in case you don’t make it to the second review!

Bill Clegg – Did You Ever Have a Family

The book starts, and you think for a moment it is going to be a book about one family – a family that all die in a fire, and the impact that has on the one person that is left. After the first few chapters you realise the story will be told through several different voices, but still, you think the main narrative element remains the same, as expected. Then as you read on, as the chapters and different voices pile up, you realise that it is about all their families, a multitude of families. The dad with the troubled son and wife with cancer, the woman whose only family is her girlfriend, the boy and his messed-up, lonely mother, the parents and their perfect, engaged, interesting children.


The bad families, the close families, the distant families, those filled with hurt and those filled with regret and those filled with admiration. It is not that you recognise your own family in it, but rather that you recognise just how unique and different everyone’s family is. There is literally nobody else out there with a family quite like mine, who can exactly understand why we respond to each other in the ways we do, why I know that if I mention poo to my mum and sister, my mum will laugh and my sister will say “I’m not continuing this conversation!” In a disgusted way. Why I know I can tease my sister but only so far – and I know exactly where the limit is. There is nobody else on the entire planet who knows exactly what my family is like – and that goes for absolutely everyone. It’s the incredible thing about relationships as well – it’s the closest you’ll ever get to knowing what a family is like that’s different to your own.

Did You Ever Have a Family manages to convey that really well through all these different characters, all connected in some way to the main thrust of the story – but sometimes it takes a while to work out exactly how as their own individual stories and characters are developed.

Love and loss are central themes running through each of the storylines, with beautiful, different perspectives on the forms love takes, like a father, holding his son’s hand as his son lies in a coma and saying:

What I know is that for me, having a son has been a difficult riddle, an awkward tiptoe between too tough and too easy. I never got the hang of it. Not like with my daughters, who were uncomplicated to be around, to love.

It’s also very much about small-town American life. Wells, one of two central locations in the book, is the kind of place where the mean girls that bullied you at school grow up to be the mean women that have children that are friends with your children, that you will bump into in the street and hear talking in the diner. It’s the kind of place where gossip lasts a lifetime and mistakes are not forgotten, where racism is subtle but prevalent and outsiders  are mistrusted.

And aside from the themes, the writing is beautiful.

“And together they will get old. The Landeses will come back every year. I will make up their rooms and bring them cookies for as long as I can, and when I can’t anymore, they will still come, with children and grandchildren, girlfriends and boyfriends and spouses. They will knock on our door and I will be there, crooked and old, and one day they will knock and I will be gone.”

I love the rhythm of it, the commas and the ands – it’s the last paragraph in the book and I could quote all of it because it is so beautifully written and crafted but I won’t so as not to ruin it for those who want to read it.

It’s just a really beautiful book. And just when you think the ending is going to be obvious, and therefore disappointing, it spins around again and in the turning of a page, takes you somewhere you did not expect, filling the reader with a sense of love, of hope, and of the gentle, inorexable passing of time. I loved it, and would whole-heartedly, resoundingly recommend it.

Andrew O’Hagan – The Illuminations

By contrast, this book is set in the UK and Afghanistan, rather than the U.S., and it focuses primarily on just one family – although others sneak in to the storyline.


Anne Quirk is an old woman, once a renowned photographer, now living in a retirement home on the coast of Ayrshire. She is sinking deeper into the depths of Alzheimers and is on the verge of having to move into a “proper care home”. She has a fractious relationship with her daughter, a close, loving relationship with her grandson, Luke, and hero-worshipping, slightly confused memories of her Harry, the father of her daughter, who died many years ago.

Maureen is a younger woman also living in the assisted living centre, Anne’s friend but also a slightly nosy woman who has her own issues with her own family. Her children seem to care about her a lot, they come to visit and call regularly. Yet Maureen is bitter and resentful of them, seeming like the worst kind of emotionally blackmailing mother, resenting her children for “the independence, the sudden confidence, the distance, the self-sufficiency“, nosing into all details of her friend’s life. But Maureen gradually becomes more sympathetic throughout the book, as she realises that she is happier with her friends than with her family and the reader realises she really is a good, caring friend to Anne.

In the next room they were bustling about, talking and upsetting her cushions and opening the Fridge, and it all felt to her like an invasion… Maybe it’s me, she said to herself, maybe it’s my problem, but I just wasn’t cut out for that way of life. Families and what have you. They would put years on you… Family life, to her, was a complication best left to television.

Then, abruptly, the story moves from a domestic world of family relationships, relationships between women, gossip, children and secrets, to an entirely different world of men and of war – still with gossip and secrets of course but with an entirely different language. Luke is a captain in the British Army, in Afghanistan. There, family is the boys around you, those who you have a sworn duty to protect, a family born out of duty rather than blood, but no less important for that. Through these sections the book deals with important issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, the realities of war itself, the relationship between the men there. But for me, these sections fell flat and were much weaker than the other sections in the book. I felt that it was a bit predictable and clichéd, from the actual events (which I won’t mention as I don’t want to spoil it), to the language used by the soldiers. It just felt slightly contrived. The novel has been praised for this “violent contrast” but for me, although I liked the contrast, I just felt the Afganistan sections could be better. Maybe I’ve read too many war books (for example, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Power is incredible).

I mean it, bitches. I can’t believe I’m turtling here in the sand with a bunch of fucken newbs with a low-ping connection to the universe – Dooley, Flange, look at the nick of them – and it’s Game On in this shithole and these fucken ‘tards think that “The Punishment Due” by Megadeth is an example of Thrash Metal.

Anne’s slow descent into dementia, however, and her family and friends’ reactions, were anything but contrived, beautifully and sadly drawn. The book is ostensibly about trying to work out the details of Anne’s life, details of the elusive but heroic Harry, at a time when she is forgetting those details herself. But actually the plot itself is just a sideshow to the main themes of the book – aging, love, war, and of course family. It’s good, and it’s enjoyable; but for me it was absolutely nothing special.

P.s. – here is something weird. When I had ALMOST finished writing this blogpost, I stumbled across The Colour of Monotony is Blue. This blogger too had paired the Illuminations and Did You Ever Have a Family in her blog BUT she much preferred the Illuminations – in fact, so much as to say it came “moderately” close to A Little Life – a position extremely far from mine. Interesting! So I would recommend reading her blog for a different viewpoint 🙂



  1. That’s awesome that you read the entire longlist! I’m planning to read Did You Ever Have a Family? soon, so I skipped your review….I kind of want to go in blind. I’m also planning to try The Fishermen in the next few months – sounds like it wasn’t as great for you as some others. But, I do think A Little Life has a decent shot at winning the thing.

    • Ah great! I loved it so hopefully you will too. I also really enjoyed the Fishermen and would definitely recommend it – I just didn’t think it was as “Booker-esque” as some of the others! I certainly found it a more enjoyable (easier) read than A Brief History for example – but at the same time I can see how A Brief History is just an absolutely incredible book!

    • haha thank you – not that much training has been going on recently! There will be a lot less reading once I get my bike back and no longer have to get public transport in the morning. But reading is my way of relaxing and winding down so I need it 🙂

  2. […] The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan – click the link for my review. Good but not incredible. Satin Island by Tom McCarthy – I didn’t expect to really love this book but I did. And I am not sure how to describe quite why. Which is tricky as I’ll be reviewing it next Friday! The Year of the Runaways by Sanjeev Sahota – quite simply, a really enjoyable read. It’s the kind of book I like, character-driven and wide-ranging in scope and location. I’ll be posting my review on Friday of this week. Lila by Marilynne Robinson – another one that I enjoyed but didn’t love. The review will be coming up in a few weeks so I’ll say no more for now. Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy – another fantastic book with a great storyline and brilliantly drawn characters. Review coming! 47 amazing things to see and do in Colombia by Neil Bennion – this took me just half an hour to read… I’m glad I read it as it gave me some good tips for places to go when I’m in Colombia but it was pretty annoying! The author kept quoting sections from his other book about Colombia, and trying to be funny… “The Spanish arrived on boats from Europe and proceeded to gallivant through the land, bringing peace and harmony wherever they went (sarcasm alert), and leaving a flower-like scent trail behind them. Assuming that the rotting cadavers of fallen indigenous people smell like flowers, that is.” I did find it funny at times but I also found it pretty grating. Don’t think I’ll be looking out his other book! The Book of Night Women by Marlon James – I reviewed this one along with my review of his Booker-nominated A Brief History of Seven Killings. I love it – my review is at the link. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai – I will be reviewing this one as I thought it was fantastic. It is occasionally obvious that it was written by a teenager but never in a bad way, it really enlightened to me as to Pakistan history, both recently and longer ago, and I now have even more respect and admiration for this incredible young girl than I did before. […]

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