What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” This is the question posed by 10-year-old Jim to his mother, Nancy, from the back seat of their old Chevette as they head north from New York City to visit Nancy’s brother at the family’s log cabin in eastern Ontario. Nancy is brought up short by Jim’s question; like most adults, she can’t whittle the list down to just one event, so she spends the rest of the novel contemplating what her answer might be. Something from the past, like giving away her dog in order to unburden herself of responsibility? (Dogs feature prominently throughout the novel.) Or is the worst thing still to come?
As with many novels featuring children as primary characters, His Whole Life centres on a boy of seemingly unerring perceptiveness. Jim is constantly watching, listening, and analyzing the events going on around him. Though not an only child (he has an adult half-brother, Blake, who drifts in and out of their lives when it suits him), Jim bears many marks of the precociousness endowed upon children who are privy to and engage in conversations primarily with adults: he’s sensitive, wise beyond his years, astute in his observations, and hyper-aware of more “adult” concerns, including current events.
The story takes place during the early to mid-1990s, against the backdrop of the looming Quebec referendum and its aftermath, and the political and societal implications of the vote resonate throughout the novel in Nancy’s thoughts and conversations. Nancy’s Canadian patriotism is a key element of her personality, but her vehement Federalism at times borders on the obsessive and neurotic. Elizabeth Hay isn’t entirely successful in convincing the reader of the plausibility of this excessive concern for a country the character has not resided in for many years, though the parallel rift closer to home is laid out blatantly: “She had become an expatriate without meaning to. Canada beckoned to her, so stable and reasonable a country. Yet always on the verge of coming apart, it had to be said, because Quebec was so unhappy. As unhappy as I am in my marriage, she thought, startled by the turn her mind had taken.”
The governing sentiments between the province and the rest of the country are mirrored in the characters’ relationships. Bitterness, misunderstanding, remorse, and grudging affection are common, while genuine love is made more precious by its rarity.
While Jim is the primary filter through which the reader experiences the story, as a character he is often in the background. It is Nancy who more frequently takes centre stage, and Hay’s third-person narration puts the character’s foibles, insecurities, and passions on full display.
Others, including Nancy’s husband, George, and Nancy’s longtime friend, the flamboyant and vivacious out-of-work actor Lulu, are fleshed out just enough that they take shape in our minds, but we are rarely given a chance to get inside theirs. This is odd, because Nancy and Jim’s relationships with these characters comprise the bulk of the story that is not taken up in ruminating on Canadian political unrest.
George is cantankerous, possessive, and prone to self-pity. Lulu describes him as “one of those lesser characters it is easy to overlook.” (If that isn’t a line delivered with a wink from the author, I don’t know what is.) When he discovers a cancerous lump in his cheek, and refuses to seek treatment until it’s too late, the reader shares Nancy’s frustration, disbelief, and yearning for an end to his deterioration. “There were days when she thought that if he would just hurry up and die she would be free. This was her worst thing, she had no doubt, wishing him dead and gone.”
After eight books, a couple of Governor General’s Literary Award nominations, and a Scotiabank Giller Prize (for 2007’s Late Nights on Air) to her credit, readers have come to expect a certain level of excellence from Hay, and fans of her previous work will be well satisfied with this latest effort. Hay’s prose is as fluid and surprising as ever. Settings come alive through her signature combination of poetry and simplicity. Standing outside of the cabin, one looks “down the slope through the open shaded air and beneath cedars to the water, the sun on the water, the watery sun flicking, flicking, flicking the undersides of the trees,” or sideways “through the smokiness of nearly dead hemlocks, very soft now, like an old woman’s wispy hair.”
While interweaving the referendum and Nancy’s personal life (and the effects of both on Jim) sometimes feels forced, there is more than enough in His Whole Life – themes of permanence, identity, forgiveness, and hope – to carry readers through the slower-moving sections. Read this book for the unmitigated beauty of Hay’s language, and the quality of her storytelling.