The historical novel has been popular with prize juries and CBC producers alike largely because, in this country at least, historical novels tend to deal with historical injustices – genocides, diasporas – and so provide moral weight, instruction and useful extraliterary issues for interviews. And indeed there were three historical novels on the $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize short list, including the much lauded Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, about U.S. slavery, and the equally decorated Beirut Hellfire Society, by Rawi Hage, about the Lebanese Civil War.
But the one that won the prize, Kathy Page’s, a novel that begins in England after the First World War and traces a family’s growth through the major events and demographic shifts of that country’s 20th century, does not quite fit this template. Although the historical events of its backdrop, the Second World War in particular, clearly influence the family’s lives, it remains personal and intimate in focus, preoccupied with the minutiae of love and the domestic. What this painstaking and painful account of a marriage – from passionate beginning to resentful, grubby end – relies on, as much as its period detail, is its precise ruminations on the nature of affection and resentment, and on how love can persist in the face of cruelty.
“A direct approach rarely works,” Harry reflects, late in his relationship with Evelyn. “Even trying to talk about the arguments, between episodes, is an aggravation: What are you accusing me of?”
This becomes a novel of sadness about love and its waste, and about the humiliation of aging. It made me cry my eyes out.
Dear Evelyn alternates between male and female points of view – those of Harry Miles, working-class army officer, and his miserable wife, Evelyn – more of it is told from his point of view and his is the personality that elicits far more sympathy. (This is quite a brilliant piece of audacity from a female writer.) Because it begins with Harry’s birth and ends with his death, it better fits the rubric of Entwicklungsroman – the novel of one character’s development into maturity. Entwicklungsromans, though, are usually autobiographical. This is Harry’s story. Page’s acknowledgments page reveals that much of it is based on her own father’s and that several of the love letters from Harry to Evelyn’s are in fact her father’s, verbatim. She denies that the characters in the book are real people, but that is hard to believe given that she is of the age of one of the daughters in the book and admits to consulting with her sisters for research. This, then, is an autobiography of a different sort: an attempt to feel a lost parent’s choices, a lengthy exploration of identification. (In an interesting coincidence, the winner of this year’s Hilary Weston Prize, an award for non-fiction also administered by the Writers’ Trust, is a memoir of the end of parents’ lives by Elizabeth Hay, a novelist also born in the 1950s.)
Harry is a sensitive boy born into the grim deprivation of a working-class family just after the First World War. At school, he is taken with a mournful and damaged teacher who was injured in the war and teaches him the beauty of poetry. Poetry becomes love and fascination that tortures him for the rest of his life, for it is a sensitivity he is not allowed to indulge – either by the army or by the economic demands of his role as male provider or by his high-strung wife, an insecure harpy as unpleasant as any character in fiction. (If the self-absorbed Evelyn had been written by a man, he would be accused of misogyny.) And yet, Harry’s unmovable love for her, his lust for her and his desperate yearning for her to be happier, to be satisfied with anything, is the driving pulse of the novel, a deep character study that makes one writhe and cringe and admire all at once.
Harry is sent to North Africa for the Desert War. The scenes of hardship and violence in Tunisia are gripping and in contrast to the constrained, penny-pinching domestic life he returns to in postwar Britain. The Miles family’s slow and back-breaking rise into the middle class parallels all of Europe’s astonishing economic miracle. As they move from slums with outhouses in back alleys into houses with plumbing – to the vague disapproval of the couple’s startled parents – new washing machines and nuclear weaponry have Cold War Europe in their grip. The sexual revolution then inevitably begins and Harry’s youngest daughter proves to be susceptible to it, leaving poor, conservative, frightened, controlling Evelyn terrified of all the things that she cannot control. Yet, Harry cannot let go of his sense of responsibility to her.
And it is in the ruminative analysis of these emotions that Dear Evelyn is so precise and so powerful. Wondering about all the different men that live inside him, Harry realizes, “There’s no knowing which one of them he really is, or how much of each would eventually be in whoever he turns out to be, if he ever does – but at times like this, outside, they could all be there, enjoying the same freedom, the vast and intricate world that they inhabit.”
When Harry starts to lose his memory in old age, and loses Evelyn herself, all he is left with is his love for her, pure, powerful and painful, and an illusory conviction that she loved him to the end as well. His childhood poetry and the voice of the wounded English teacher return to him. It’s an extraordinarily poignant and troubling ending, a love story that is stubbornly made of the failures of love.
(A disclosure note: I do not know Kathy Page and had no connection to the production of this book, but I did include a chapter of it in an anthology of stories I recently edited. I thought it was good then and still do.)