As part of a week-long series of radio essays called “Art in a Cold Climate” on BBC 3, I was one of five writers from five different northern countries given the task ‘to select and reflect on a work of art which in some way captures the essence of their nation.’ A tall order, but I couldn’t resist. I chose a work by David Milne, long a favourite painter of mine and of my mother’s, herself a painter. To follow the series and hear the essays on the BBC, which are part of its Northern Lights season throughout December, you can click here.
A four N review by Susan G. Cole of His Whole Life in Toronto’s NOW Magazine calls the novel “superb,” “a poignant portrait of a complex family dealing with loss and regret.” Well, to be accurate, she says, “nevertheless superb,” because she takes exception to one of the elements in the story. Fair enough. The full review is here.
It was a great pleasure to have His Whole Life on the shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, 2015.
The jury’s citation reads: Set on the cusp of personal and national change, His Whole Life is a resonant and penetrating novel that explores the complex evolution of love and affection through a rich array of relationships. At this story’s centre are a mother and son so richly realized their delights, pleasures, and aches become the reader’s. Elizabeth Hay deftly – in elegant and luminous prose – explores how life can betray us or bring us to the surface, and all the subtle ways that one human being can fail, or serve, another.
The jurors were Aislin Hunter, Shani Mootoo, and Richard Wagamese.
Shelagh Rogers did an on-stage interview with me about His Whole Life for The First Chapter, her CBC Radio books program. We spoke on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at the Woody Point Writers’ Festival in Woody Point, Newfoundland. Listen to our conversation here.
The Globe and Mail interviewed me about His Whole Life and about which books have meant the most to me. The first question they asked was why I wrote my new novel (later I got to talk about big-band music, Pauline Kael’s fearless movie reviews, and a sexy porcupine):
It flowed, or hacked its way, out of two long-standing regrets: that years ago I gave away my dog and that I never managed to convince my children that Canada was an exciting place to live your life. I let those regrets come forward and crowd my mind and the strands of a story emerged involving a mother whose young son loves Canada and wants a dog. They spend winters in New York City and parts of every summer on an Ontario lake. In the background is the 1995 referendum in Quebec. I wanted the boy’s family to be falling apart and staying together as the country falls apart and stays together. At 10, Jim already has sources of guilt and shame that give his life a rough and uneven texture. That’s the sort of texture a novel needs. And the question that interests me is how do we live with ourselves, given our failings and mistakes.
Read the rest of the interview here.
For readers and book clubs, we’ve compiled a series of questions that might be helpful. They range from, “Do you think worst things define people forever?” to questions about Nan and Lulu’s friendship, George’s stubbornness, Jim’s understanding of himself, and the significance of the title. Here is the full readers’ guide.
Discussion Questions for
His Whole Life
- This book revolves around families – the relationships of parents with children, especially mothers and sons, and siblings with each other. What do you think the significance is of the epigraph from George Oppen, referring to “. . . an old dream of families dispersing into adulthood?”
- Nan says, “Doing something terrible doesn’t define you for the rest of your life,” (p. 296) yet the characters often think and ask each other about the worst things they’ve done. Does Nan really believe what she says above? How does the past shape the various characters and their actions? Do you think worst things define people forever? And what happens if your worst thing is also your best thing?
- The book is set at a particular moment in Canadian history. Discuss the ways the question of Quebec’s separation resonate in the novel as a whole, and why do you think the author decided to set the novel at this particular time.
- Jim and Nan visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization and learn about the Dorset people. How does that visit and the story of the Dorset relate to Jim and Nan’s own life?
- Nature and a sense of place are keenly important in the novel. How does a yearning for nature and home define the characters and affect the decisions they make in their lives?
- Nan says to Jim, “The gods sweep down and change things,” (p. 8) and that there are “accidents of death and birth.” (p. 9) How does her sense of invisible and often random forces operating in the world echo in her own life?
- Jim is often caught between his parents, an “indecisive father and over-decisive mother.” (p. 88) In what ways does Jim learn to navigate his way between them? What does he identify as his parents’ different needs? And how does he adapt his behaviour in response to them? In what ways is his relationship with his mother different from that with his father?
- Describe Nan and Lulu’s friendship, one which has sustained itself over time. In spite of their differences, they complement each other in particular ways. Discuss.
- At the core of Lulu’s sadness is the way in which she feels betrayed by her dying parent and her brother. Discuss the ways in which Lulu and her brother find forgiveness.
- At one point, Jim begins typing a story and realizes he can make what he believes come true, in a certain sense. Nan tells George she loves him and wonders, “How could saying words she only half believed turn into a profound truth?” (p. 304) Discuss how it is that two opposing things can both be true and how this idea can be applied to the characters in the novel – Jim, Nan, George, Lulu.
- Why does George not have surgery immediately upon discovering the tumour in his cheek? Is it partly, as Nan suspects, because he wants to hold on to her and their marriage? (p. 177)
- “When you take things personally,” Nan thinks, “the world becomes very small. It is you and nothing is smaller. When you manage not to do that, the world is wide.” (p. 294) What are the ways in which the characters attempt to not take things so personally? And ways in which they aren’t successful at that?
- In school, Jim learns the meaning of the word metamorphosis. What, if any, metamorphoses do the characters undergo throughout the course of the book?
- Jim thinks, “It would always be a puzzle to him, the things he didn’t say, as if it weren’t the right moment, and the things he didn’t ask, as if he already knew the answer.” (p. 264-65) Why is that? Is the same true of the other characters? What are some of the things the characters don’t say to each other? What effect does that have? What have you not said or not asked in your life?
- Discuss the significance of the title. The novel takes place over several years. In what ways do these years shape Jim’s life?
Dory Cerny in Quill & Quire writes that “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. Read this book for the unmitigated beauty of Hay’s language, and the quality of her storytelling.” Full review here.
Nancy Wigston in the Toronto Star writes: “In His Whole Life, Elizabeth Hay returns to the theme of duality, that tug between north and south that haunts her fiction. How lucky we are to have her, this writer who stares down the tough issues in life — whether domestic or political — with such wit and grace. There is much at play here — a country and a marriage that may not survive, sins that may or may not be forgiven. Yet Hay’s luminous prose — and a last scene that soars right off the page — is transcendent, redeeming the best and worst things.” Full review here.
Published only a week ago, on August 11, His Whole Life is already on the Globe and Mail’s best seller list for fiction. Hurray. And now — as of August 18 — it’s #3 on the best seller list in Macleans.
In Macleans magazine Dilia Narduzzi reviews His Whole Life: “Hay writes an expansive novel about the meaning of loyalty, friendship, and choosing between staying and going. While there’s plenty to sink your teeth into — the intense relationships between humans and dogs, cancer’s emotional and physical toll — it’s Hay’s perceptive writing that shines brightest. There’s something magical in the descriptions of the family lake house in Ontario … The effect of the lake ripples across each character. His Whole Life offers a perspective about what it means to be Canadian — in our political history and romantic, wild habitats. Archetypal stories, yes, but compelling ones.” Read the full review here.