There are a couple of similarities between the books that recently won two big Canadian literary prizes: Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page (a novel I reviewed last week) won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and All Things Consoled, a memoir by Elizabeth Hay, won the $60,000 Hilary Weston award for non-fiction. Hay’s memoir describes an adult daughter’s care for her aging parents up to their lingering deaths, and analyzes all the family’s relations and power dynamics; Page’s novel (in its last quarter, anyway) covers similar ground, with three adult daughters debating how to care for parents in their final stages, and the elderly couple also locked in love struggles till the end. Neither book shies away from the bedpans and the diapers and the loneliness of those humiliating final months.
This is of course the famous boomer conundrum (Hay was born in 1951, Page in 1958), the nightmare of the sandwich generation whose obligations are torn between their offspring and their parents. But the books to some extent share a style as well (and Hay of course, like Page, is a much-crowned novelist, author of the 2007 Giller-winning Late Nights On Air): a quiet, straightforward, analytical style that obsesses over domestic ritual and its significance. Both books linger over who prepared what meal and pot of tea, and both are relentlessly Waspy.
Indeed, the setting of Hay’s memoir is so deeply tidy, so profoundly suburban – a place of Southern Ontarian detached houses and lawns and schools and birdwatching – that it seems like a kind of magic world to the outsider; a place so completely homogeneous and bland it must be make-believe, a fantasy universe created for a children’s story. Here there is no such thing as hip-hop or heroin or handjobs, no-one has ever had a threesome, taken the subway or attended a fashion show or gambled in a casino; indeed there seem to be no city centres at all, just gardens connected to other gardens by roads. Children seem to be generated by some kind of family assent or national will, as nobody knows anybody who has ever had sex or even mentioned it.
I sound critical, but in fact the effect of this claustrophobically uniform scene is to suck one into the emotion of family dynamics. There is Dad – Gordon Hay, retired schoolteacher, history buff, stern patriarch, a perennially disapproving, cold and harsh man, whose wife and daughters (especially Elizabeth, the narrator) seem desperate to elicit love or even acknowledgment from. Trying awkwardly to please the old man, at one point Elizabeth thinks, “And what am I doing now but what my mother did her whole married life? Wishing I could make him feel better about himself.”
There is Mom, Jean Hay, former painter, whose slow slide into dementia absorbs the literary Elizabeth, for the random phrases and misspeakings she comes up with sound a lot like poetry. The author quotes these barely-meaningful sentences liberally and meticulously throughout the book, for they are windows into a turbulent dreamlike world: “Spring has arrived by the throat,” she says, or “See you tomorrow every day.” The book’s title, “All Things Consoled," is in fact one of these evocative malapropisms.
Very little happens over the course of this narrative, except an inexorable decline. The parents agree to be put into a home, where they are visited and cared for by their children until first Dad dies, then Mom; by the end she is deeply confused and frightened and yet fully cognizant that she wants to die as soon as possible. “I looked around the retirement home and saw wartime,” confesses the exhausted author. The stakes of this narrative are whether or not Elizabeth and her mother will come closer to the distant patriarch, a man they admire and fear, a man who has never even congratulated his daughter for her many prizewinning books. (In one heartbreaking scene, he throws out his signed copies of her books, abandoning them in a pile for her to discover.) The subquestion in this minimal plot is whether Elizabeth and her mother will overcome their vague competition. (They do this in the very end through a highly technical bit of business involving the making of lemon meringue pies. This segment was too foreign for me to fully penetrate.)
What is powerful in this simple story are the details of the exhausting love that children of declining parents are unable to escape, the love that keeps them for long hours in hospitals and homes constantly revising the past, trying to redress wrongs and relive formative moments. Jean’s painting is a metaphor for this process: with her technical skill becoming blunter, her palette simpler, her paintings are a past literally growing faint. But they are also, like her errant language, a new vision of the same past, a reconfiguring, just as the finished book itself serves to be.
Prizes for non-fiction books often go to heavily researched historical narratives or journalistic exposés. This book is so small and personal that it seems to belong to another category altogether. In fact its tiny scope and narrow focus is its strength. It is quite simply about death and how it both scours us and educates us. It is also an uncomfortable reminder of what it really means that people are living longer than they ever have before.