His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay – a review


He didn’t know how to put it all together, life and death and things looming up.  Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming.  p. 278

Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, His Whole Life, juxtaposes a family in a slow state of collapse, the Bobaks, against the decade or so surrounding the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995 – a time when Canada itself felt as though it might be in a slow state of collapse.  The novel starts with a question on a car ride from New York, where the Bobaks live, to a lake in eastern Ontario, where they vacation every summer.  Jim Bobak, ten years old, asks his mother, Nan, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s a question that keeps reappearing in the book, both directly and indirectly.  And it’s a question whose answer requires regular revision.  Every character is a flawed human being looking for connection.

I’d like to be able to say that what I like best about this book is how well written it is, how rich and accurate the descriptions of people, places, and things; or perhaps how well developed, human, and understandable the characters are – all of them, even those who are not painted in the most favourable light – there are no broad strokes here.  I could lay the same praise on any of Hay’s novels, though.  What I love best about this one is far more personal.  My family was also in a slow state of dissolution in the 90’s.  We also split our time between New York and a lake in eastern Ontario.  I was also struggling with questions of loyalty and identity I did not feel well equipped to handle.  And all of what Hay writes rings true for my memories of that period.

As a natural extension to the question of the worst thing each character has ever done, the primary issue each (but most especially Nan) must resolve is the transition from avoiding to accepting the inevitable complexity of living.  In this way, the book recalls Hugh MacLennan’s beautiful line from The Watch That Ends The Night:

But that night as I drove back to Montreal, I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.

Hay, to her credit, does not let her charges off quite so easily as MacLennan does.  She allows their actions to explain themselves.  In a lesser writer’s hand, this (and the analogy between a family and a nation in a state of crisis) could have come across as ham fisted, but there is no such danger here.  The exchanges between her characters flow beautifully, even through the tension between them.

Through a combination of perseverance and acceptance (recurrent qualities in Canadian literature), Nan eventually does find resolution for the primary conflicts in her life.  She comes to a state of equilibrium, as does the nation after the Quebec separatist motion is narrowly defeated.  And equilibrium brings her forgiveness.

It felt like two rivers meeting insider her, one blue, one brown.  The brown of “George, you hurt me,” and the blue of “I’m still breathing.  I must have hurt you too.”  If that could be considered forgiveness, if forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.  p. 350

She had been hungrier than she knew to hear [Pierre Elliot] Trudeau praised after all the years of denigration and indifference.  And now the hunger was being satisfied.  “I wonder,” she said to Jim, “if the urge to appreciate and forgive is actually more powerful, if a good deal rarer, than the urge to dismiss and despise.”  p. 358

Towards the end of the book, after Nan and Jim have returned to Canada for good, Hay drops this beautiful little nugget into the text:

How vast a land this was in which people lost things that could not be replaced.  p. 360

To this, I can only add that some of us have also found things there that we feared we’d lost forever.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay is a gorgeous and evocative work.  It’s not just fiction; it’s literature.  If you’ve enjoyed her other work, you will love this.  If you’ve not yet had the extreme pleasure of reading her, it’s a great place to start (but by all means, make sure you read Late Nights On Air and A Student Of Weather, too).