His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

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His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

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Buy His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Set in Canada in the mid-1990s, with a tightly knit cast of characters, this is a coming of age story, a knitting together of things coming apart. It is deeply beautiful story-telling at its absolute best.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2017
Publisher: MacLehose Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857055446

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If you think that un-put-down-able is the greatest accolade for a book, think again.

Put-down-able can be stronger praise: His Whole Life is put-down-able. It encourages you to put it down, to wrap yourself in the slow-moving story, the exquisite writing, the subtleties of the characters, and just walk around for a while with them slowly sinking in; it encourages you to come back to it again and again; mostly it encourages you to put it down, to read it slowly, because you don't want it to end.

Jim is a quiet boy. Named for Jim Hawkins, the cabin-boy narrator of Treasure Island. CliffsNotes character analysis of that other Jim tell us he is a smart, goodhearted, and relatively courageous adolescent boy, one who is writing a report and not baring his soul – which is not a bad description of Hay's character. Our Jim is not the narrator, but he is the focus of the story. When he is ten years old, he and Nan (his mother) and George (his father) drive up from their home in New York to a family place on a remote lakeshore in eastern Ontario. They do this most years, to stay with her aunt and uncle who own the cabin. It is a simple life, a contrast to the bustle and struggle of their New York existence.

On the drive north, Jim asks his parents What's the worst thing you've ever done? He declines to tell them his own worst thing, and it is some time before the reader is allowed to know it. The question though, continues to haunt the story line. We ask ourselves of each of the character what is their worst thing? Do they even know? But it also echoes in the text, one or other character remembering Jim being so insistent with his question, that even years later, they will preface a comment with 'here's a worst thing'.

The story is set in the mid-1990s when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada, or at least hoped she was. It was the second referendum in 15 years, and this time the vote was very close. Reading this in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and what is increasingly looking like the potential break-up not just of the European Union but of the United Kingdom as well, makes it all the more poignant for one who desperately wanted to remain part of the Union. It isn't an allegory though – at least not one of the current situation – it is truly routed in what it is to be Canadian, or Quebecois.

When Nan inherits the cabin, and the ailing family dog, she decides to take Jim to stay for more than a few weeks, to stay at least until the dog has passed on, to have at least one very long summer on the lake. Her irritable and irritant husband declines to come along as she knew, maybe hoped, he would – and the stage is set for a mother-and-son bond forging. Life is never so simple though, and one day in walks Lulu.

Lulu was the friend of Nan's youth: wild and unpredictable and utterly loved. She has changed little – though perhaps she may yet do so.

Life at the lake progresses slowly. Things happen, small dramatic incidents, and the people find (or don't find) a way to deal with them. This isn't a book about what happened. It is a book about how they were. And how the times were. The blurb talks about an intimate world where everything that matters is at risk: family, nature, country, home. That is true, but it is a truth that can be turned into a question as to whether those are the things that really matter. Not everyone attaches to all of them, or any of them, or at least not in equal measure.

It is a coming-of-age story. We follow Jim from that first summer on the lake when he was ten years old (and too old and wise for his years) to another summer when he is alone there with his mother when he is 17 years old, looking into adulthood but in many ways possibly somewhat younger than he would ever be. It is not just adolescent children who come of age, though. She may be in her fifties but Lulu has her own growing up to do, as (in many ways) do all of the characters: George, Blake (Nan's other son by a former husband), Lulu's brother Guy, George's absent brother Martin.

Focusing as it does on Jim and Nan, the key strand is the bond between a mother and her son, but Blake's background presence underlines the lack of inevitability about such bonds. It's also about sibling love and sibling rivalry and how the two intertwine. In these troubled times, it is also unashamedly, a book about nationhood – whether in matters and if so why and how and to who. At one point Nan says its visceral – if you need to ask, you won't understand the answer. Like many of us in respect of many questions she understands the logical arguments, can even agree with them, but fails to be swayed non-the-less.

Because this is Hay there are other plot-lines that hint at other aspects of modern life and its various problems: the choosing or refusing of treatment for terminal illnesses, the roles of women (and our own complicity in what is expected of us), the various responses of the quiet, talented children, when their approach to the world is not welcomed by their peers.

But because it is Hay, that isn't really why you're reading it. You're reading it because she snares you with her utterly perfect turn of phrase and tone and what Dory Cerny (in Quill and Quire) called the unmitigated beauty of her language.

This doesn't read like a novel. It reads like a memoir, something true and real and deeply personal. For the readers who also keep journals, this a book that you can open at random and find a 'prompt' on every page… a phrase or a vignette that leads you further into the story, whilst at the same time keying into your own memories and daydreams. It is as calm as the summer lake, and just as deep.

I love it.

(Present tense, because I know I haven't finished reading it yet.) If you've not come across Elizabeth Hay before you absolutely must check out Late Nights on Air and Alone In The Classroom. If I'm reminded of anyone's writing when reading Hay it is Tove Jansson – check out The True Deceiver.

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Buy His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon.com.

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