Book Review: His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

His Whole Life - Elizabeth Hay (Emblem Editions, 2015)
His Whole Life – Elizabeth Hay (Emblem Editions, 2015)

People love others not because they are lovable necessarily but because it takes such a weight off the heart.

Having read one previous novel by Elizabeth Hay (Alone in the Classroom), I began to read her latest book expecting a decent read. I’m happy to report that Hay blew my expectations out of the water. It’s a real pleasure to see a writer improve with each novel and Hay wasn’t exactly struggling to begin with.

His Whole Life follows a young boy named Jim and his small, flawed family. The novel begins when Jim is about ten years old and he and his mother and father are on their way to Ontario for the summer. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Jim asks his parents. This question is one that re-surfaces throughout the story, as each character comes up with new answers.

Hay excels at drawing out multiple themes as the story, and Jim’s adolescence, progresses. Jim and his parents live in New York City but he and his mother (a Canadian) have deep ties to Ontario and a cabin on a lake there. Jim’s father, George, doesn’t care for the place and this divide only grows the more time Jim and his mother, Nancy, spend there. George and Nancy have both been married before, both have children from previous relationships and this too creates divided loyalties, growing secrets. As backdrop to this is the 1995 Quebec referendum, a vote to decide if Canada will split in two.

Along with this divisiveness and hand-in-hand with the question of “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” is the idea of forgiveness. What does it look like? What does it change? There’s a fascinating scene where Nancy and Jim run into a childhood friend of Nancy’s who asks her for forgiveness. If you forgive someone, do your actions need to change? It’s a big question and one Hay wisely leaves unanswered. Here her characterization really shines as she lets Nancy respond in a wholly realistic way, even if the reader might not entirely approve.

“So he was an asshole. So what?

His words stopped them in their tracks.

“Can’t you just forgive him?”

Family is at the centre of His Whole Life, including the question of who is your family. The half-brother you rarely see? Your mother’s best friend who, in many ways, seems more loyal than your own father? How do you love two people who are pulling you in different directions?

Jim didn’t question his mother’s love, not for him, not the long haul of her love. That was steady and beyond doubt. But the moment-to-moment changes in her mood pierced him. He had friends who used to like him and didn’t anymore. Something about him got on their nerves, the way his father got on his mother’s nerves. You couldn’t fix it. You couldn’t make people love you more than they did.


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