HIS WHOLE LIFE by Elizabeth Hay (McClelland & Stewart), 357 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNNN
It speaks to Elizabeth Hay’s gifts that a major device in His Whole Life fails but the book is nevertheless superb.
Her novel, shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Award, examines the complicated relationships within a family against the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty. Throughout the novel, Nan’s marriage to Jim’s father, George, is compared to the relationship between English and French Canada. A cliché? Very close to it.
But the novel is nevertheless a poignant portrait of a complex family dealing with loss and regret. It opens with 10-year-old Jim asking his parents, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Neither has an easy answer. There’s the kind of bad that feels terrible in the moment but doesn’t linger. There’s the act that at the time didn’t seem like much of anything but makes a person feel perpetually guilty. Hay spends the rest of the novel wrestling with the question, both in terms of the characters’ pasts and the decisions they’re about to make.
She evokes her settings expertly: the gorgeous lake, shimmering with colour, the grey American city where mammoth buildings block the sunlight.
And the characters are very strong, especially the colourful, straight-talking actor Lulu, who rekindles a friendship with Nan that has the kind of dynamism that’s missing from her marriage. George, a bitter man full of resentment that mystifies Nan, is foolishly jealous.
But the most powerful bond is between Nan and Jim, who as he grows into teenhood proves wise beyond his years, and is also unafraid to speak his mind. He’s a talented writer and artist who’s not liked by his peers, which distresses Nan. The tenderness between them is irresistible.
Never mind the divided Canada bit. The metaphor is weak but the novel is strong.
Hay appears at the Lillian Smith Library on Wednesday (November 18). See Readings.
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