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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review of "His Whole Life" by Elizabeth Hay

4 Stars
   Having read virtually all of Hay's previous fiction, I rushed to the bookstore on the release date of this, her latest book.  It did not disappoint.

Covering a period of about five years, the novel is set in the mid-1990s, around the time of the Quebec referendum.  The protagonist is Jim Bobak who is 10 years old at the beginning.  He lives in Manhattan, where his American father George feels most at home, but spends summers in the Ottawa Valley cottage country where his Canadian mother Nancy is most comfortable.

This is not a plot-driven novel.  The major events are those encountered by most families some time in their lives:  illness, happy times, rivalries, disputes, reconciliations.  Familial relationships evolve.  The feelings and motivations of the characters are those experienced by everyone:  guilt and regret because of past actions, frustration with oneself and others, the need to be loved, the desire for forgiveness, conflicts between loyalties.

Conflicting choices serve as the framework of the novel:  Quebec, “a place torn between staying and leaving, and therefore always dissatisfied” (226), must choose between sovereignty and unity; Nancy must choose living in Canada or living in the U.S.; Jim is torn between rural life and urban living; Nancy must decide whether to stay with George or to leave him; Lulu, Nancy’s best friend, and George must both choose between reconciling with a brother or continuing the estrangements. 

The observations about family I found interesting.  The relationship between a parent and a grown child:  “Fragility itself, the construction of camaraderie between a parent and child after the child leaves home.  Blown down by the least rebuff” (20).  And the pain of family estrangement:  “the old family loneliness – that immeasurable desolation – and looking for some way in” (136).  Who wouldn’t agree with this comment:  “How strange and unknowable families were.  Relatives could be so savage with one another and so caring at the same time” (345)?   So why do we love our family members?  Maybe “People love others not because they are lovable necessarily but because it takes such a weight off the heart” (308).

Forgiveness in families is also touched on.  Nancy quotes an Alice Munro story: “’”Forgiveness in families is a mystery to me, how it comes or how it lasts”’” (47).  She makes the observation that apologies may take different forms:  “’In the way he accepted your affection, he was saying he was sorry’” (234).  Keeping faithful to the framework of the novel, the author even studies the dual nature of forgiveness:  Nancy questions whether forgiveness is “in some terrible, overeager way a lack of curiosity.  It was a big, powerful hose that washed everything away. . . . Forgiveness was the premature end to the story.  She had skipped to the last page instead of reading the book through” (82).  Or is forgiveness “a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe” (350)?

The novel examines how people make choices.  It can be difficult to make choices because of divided loyalties.  Nancy even says to George, “’you can be loyal to what disappoints you. . . . Who’s to say we can’t have many loves and many identities?  We can hold more in our hearts than we think’” (193 – 194).  And the novel also examines how people can move forward after they’ve made poor choices.  Jim begins this theme by asking his parents, “’What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’” (3) on the opening page.  Nancy understands that her son is asking what to do after doing something bad, though he chooses not to tell her what he did.  Nancy also understands that decisions made with the best of intentions may turn out to be horribly wrong:  “But what was admirable in the moment became inexcusably self-serving in hindsight.  It must happen to others, she thought.  You think you’re doing something brave.  Only later does it seem so baldly wrong that it’s hard to understand what you were thinking at the time” (286).  The answer seems to be “’Don’t rush’” (276) when making decisions, but it’s never too late to correct a bad choice (206).  Most importantly, we should remember, “’Doing something terrible doesn’t define you for the rest of your life’” (300).

The characterization of Jim is wonderful.  He is sensitive, intelligent, observant, and curious.  He thinks about his own behaviour:  “Jim knew he had the same effect on people sometimes, trying too hard and not knowing how to quit” (90).  He wants to learn how to live:  how to defend himself without being nasty (81).  In this regard, the best advice he receives is, “’Be firm but don’t yank’” (236), just like when walking a dog on a leash.  It is often Jim’s comments about the behaviour of adults which are most perceptive; for example, George makes a particularly nasty comment about Lulu in Jim’s hearing though shortly after he complains that Jim does not respect him.  Jim thinks, “he respected [George] enough to believe he meant what he said, and if he meant what he said, then how could he respect him?  A father who wants to be admired should think these things through” (292).

This is a book for readers who are willing, like Jim is advised, to be patient and not to rush.  It resonates with issues about life and its complicated, conflicted, and confused relationships.  It is definitely worth reading and probably more than just once.