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Review: Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, His Whole Life, is a moving reflection on an unbreakable mother-son bond

Elizabeth Hay photo by Mark Fried_2014[1].jpeg

Mark Fried

His Whole Life
Elizabeth Hay
McClelland & Stewart

'What's the worst thing you've ever done?" asks 10-year-old Jim during the drive to his uncle's cottage in the summer of 1995. His parents prevaricate; answers only begin to suggest themselves months and years later.

In His Whole Life, Giller Prize-winning author Elizabeth Hay blends a lakeside setting, a touch of CanLit self-referencing and discriminating doses of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy to create a family saga cast against the backdrop of the second Quebec referendum.

Shifting perspectives between Jim and his mother, the novel is both a coming-of-age story and a study of a marriage in decline. Jim lives in New York with his Canadian mother, Nan, and American father, George, until the sudden deaths of his aunt and uncle lead him and his parents back to the lakeside property to tie up loose ends. George eventually returns to the city, opening up narrative space for Lulu, Nan's childhood friend who is now an out-of-work actress. Lulu's estranged brother, Guy, lives in the adjoining property. With no time for Lulu's drinking habit or the grudge she has borne him for years, Guy nevertheless inveigles himself back into Nan's life; and so, just as one family seems to be falling apart, another begins to heal.

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Hay is a wise and astute observer of adolescence: Early in Jim's first visit to the lake "it seemed all of life was calling out to him and all he had to do was grow up." Later, a teenage Jim suffers his first heartbreak: "He didn't know how to put it all together, death and life and things looming up. Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming."

Jim's favourite books are The Odyssey and The Story of Canada, both of which are plundered for comparisons: "His favourites were Hector, the Trojan prince, and René Lévesque, the Quebec politician who was 'rarely seen without a cigarette.' Noble strivers and losers, that's who he liked." It is an effective way of introducing the Canadian political narrative, which serves as a sort of echo chamber for the story. Pre-teen Jim is curious about the impending Quebec referendum and the one which preceded it; his mother is a passionate federalist, while Lulu supports the separatists and views Lucien Bouchard as a martyr (to Nan, merely "a peg-legged man of sorrow"). For Jim, there is an undeniable thrill at the intoxicating prospect of a national crisis unfolding, and he "enjoyed watching people take sides … Yet it worried him too, since he wanted … to be on the right side, the brave and exciting side."

As in a Greek tragedy, we already know what the result will be; the political tension serves instead primarily as a metaphor for Nan and George's marriage. Expat Nan feels that "Canada beckoned to her, such a stable and reasonable country. Yet always on the verge of coming apart, because Quebec was so unhappy. As unhappy as I am in my marriage, she thought."

Jim's feelings toward George are equally ambivalent: "To have a father you could not admire. To be fond of him all the same and sorry for him." George is not a bad person, but a weak one: self-pitying and prone to glooms, jealous of Nan's friendship with Lulu, desperate for Jim's love – "an unlucky man," as one aunt observes.

George's character reaches his full, insufferable realization in the third section, when Hay describes the suffocating microcosm of Jim's home life back in New York. As a new crisis befalls the family, Nan goes from "blaming George for not generating the love she wanted to feel" to realizing that "people love others not because they are lovable necessarily but because it takes such a weight off the heart."

Hay's compassionate and nuanced rendering of George is perhaps the book's greatest achievement. There are weaknesses, including clunky exposition through dialogue and occasional lapses into cliché – the lonely young protagonist who is destined to become a writer; the repeated conceit of Nan rubbing a scar on her forehead to allude to past trauma – but these are minor irritations. More wearing is the sometimes too-transparent approach of tracing the outlines of characters around mythical and political templates: "George … was 'the rest of the family' the way English Canada was 'the rest of Canada.' That summer Quebec seemed serene in its power, secure, as if all packed up and ready to leave." For such an assured writer, Hay relies on this device surprisingly often.

Quibbles aside, His Whole Life is a moving reflection on nationhood and the evolution of an unbreakable mother-son bond. Like Jim's question in the car, it inspires deeper questions of loyalty, forgiveness and maturity – and reassures us that growing up doesn't always have to mean growing away.

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Trilby Kent's most recent novel is Silent Noon.

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