BY PAUL GESSELL
Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, His Whole Life, begins with a question from 10-year-old Jim to his parents, Nancy and George: “What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
It is a question that will inevitably cause readers to pause for a moment and recall some event in their own life they would rather forget. Surely, we all have one.
Jim answers his own question by confessing to having tattled on a cheating classmate. Both his parents return to their own childhoods, recalling ugly incidents that, decades later, still haunt them and continue to influence their adult lives.
Jim’s question on the first page of the book sets an ominous tone for this story of a dysfunctional family. But it’s not just the family in trouble. So is Canada because of the impending 1990 Quebec sovereignty referendum. Hay’s characters hotly debate the issue.
The sovereignty discussion is fuelled by the memories of old wounds and battles, just as old slights are constantly resurrected between bickering spouses. The comparison between the problems of Confederation and the troubled marriage is not always apt and, thankfully, Hay has been judicious in making those links.
Nancy is a Canadian from eastern Ontario. She loves her country and loves life at her family’s lakeside cottage near Lanark. George is a New Yorker and very much a city person. The family lives in New York but vacations at the Canadian cottage.
The geographically-based cultural differences between George and Nancy complicate their disintegrating marriage. Young Jim, of course, is caught in the middle but is increasingly drawn to his mother, falls under the spell of his mother’s eccentric friend Lulu, and loves the Lanark cottage as much as his mother does.
The ominous tone set at the beginning of the book continues throughout the story. Tragic events occur, leading us to a bittersweet ending.
Above all, this is a story about a mother-son relationship. There is the ring of truth to that relationship presented so poignantly, although some readers may find the plot veers occasionally into overly sentimental territory.
This is not the first time the Ottawa-based Hay has explored mother-son relationships. Remember her earlier novel Garbo Laughs? In that story set in Ottawa during the 1998 ice storm, we meet the movie-addicted mother, Harriet, and her movie-addicted son, Kenny, a 10-year-old who is the same age as Jim when we meet him in His Whole Life. Garbo Laughs only skimmed the surface of the mother-son relationship. We get the full treatment in His Whole Life.
In this new novel, Hay wants us to see the son, Jim, as the central character. The book title is, after all, a reference to Jim’s life. To keep Jim centre stage, the author constantly refers to other characters as “his mother” or “his father” even when Jim is not part of the scene being described. This is jarring at times because it is the thoughts, fears, emotions and experiences of Nancy, the mother, that overwhelmingly drive the story. This is Nancy’s book, far more than Jim’s. We see Jim largely through his mother’s eyes.
And when Nancy speaks, it is difficult not to hear Hay speaking. Anyone who knows Hay will recognize the various turns of phrase her characters use in the book as the words she herself unconsciously uses in day-to-day life. Close your eyes and you can hear Hay reading the book aloud.
Hay is a masterful story teller who employs exquisitely precise prose. In 2007 her talent was recognized with the Scotiabank Giller Prize for the novel Late Nights on Air.
In her new book, Hay carefully peels back the layers of her main characters. Simultaneously, we surely peer into Hay’s own psyche. One can only wonder how Hay would answer Jim’s question: “What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Based on the answers to that question by the characters in His Whole Life, I suspect Hay has some guilty childhood secret of her own. But then, don’t we all?
Hay is launching His Whole Life Aug. 9, at 3 p.m., at a free event at the Horticultural Building at Lansdowne Park.
For information on the book launch, visit www.writersfestival.org.