Reading Guide for His Whole Life

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

  1. 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?”
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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)
  12. “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?
  13. In school, Jim learns the meaning of the word metamorphosis. What, if any, metamorphoses do the characters undergo throughout the course of the book?
  14. 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?
  15. Discuss the significance of the title. The novel takes place over several years. In what ways do these years shape Jim’s life?


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Quill & Quire

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.

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Toronto Star

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.

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Already A Bestseller

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.

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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.

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Ottawa Launch of His Whole Life

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, August 9, more than 200 people attended the launch of His Whole Life outside the Horticulture Building in Ottawa. I’m under the canopy, like the Pope. The event was organized with flare by the Ottawa Writers’ Festival. Thanks to them for the photograph.LizHayLaunch

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Vancouver Sun

In Tracy Sherlock’s review of His Whole Life in the Vancouver Sun, she says, “This book is about growing up and the events that make growing up harder. It’s about friends and secrets and broken marriages. It’s about doing what one has to do to get by and to look oneself in the mirror every day … it is all so true — true to human nature and families and life. His Whole Life is about a boy growing up, but in it readers will find themes, musings and quotes that resonate and strike home with their accuracy and insight. His Whole Life is a lovely novel.” Read the whole review here.

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CBC Books

CBC Books runs a series of short interviews in which authors ask the questions. For instance, Alexi Zentner asks, “What’s your worst writing habit?” My answer: “Rewriting the first page so often it becomes pathetic.” You can read the full interview here.

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Ottawa Citizen on His Whole Life

“Hay explores power of regret in new novel.” Peter Robb’s article in the Ottawa Citizen, based on an interview with me, gives the background for His Whole Life. He writes, “Hay grapples with profound emotions in her books. That is why she writes about boys and dogs and mothers and sons.” Read the full article here.

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You finish writing a book and relax for a bit. I finished His Whole Life in March and now it’s the end of June. The book will come out in August.

That’s soon. And what always happens is happening again. I imagine having to talk about the novel at readings and interviews and the like, and a sort of amnesia sets in. My mind goes blank. I don’t believe I have anything at all to say and it unnerves me.

A few days ago, a friend mentioned the Cambridge novels of C. P. Snow. Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for a long time, although he was certainly big enough fifty years ago. Since my son is living in Cambridge, my friend thought he would enjoy Snow’s novels, which he remembered in impressive detail. Then yesterday I found one of them in my mailbox with a note: “Not one of the Cambridge ones but it will give you a taste. No need to return.”

The Conscience of the Rich. 1958. I started to read it and on the first page found described my own problem. The narrator is writing a final examination and can’t make sense of the words on the question-paper. “At the beginning of each examination I was possessed in this way: as though by a magnified version of one of those amnesias in which a single word – for example TAKE – looks as though we have never seen it before, and in which we have to reassure ourselves, staring at the word, that it occurs in the language and that we have used it, spelt exactly in that fashion, every day of our lives.”

Then suddenly his amnesia vanishes and he is “reading, deciding, watching myself begin to write,” absorbed in the job at hand. “This I could do; I was immersed in a craftman’s pleasure.”

To answer as a craftsman or woman, that’s all that’s required. How did I go about making His Whole Life? I can talk about that when I’m asked about my book.

In my mailbox this morning was another of Snow’s novels, The Affair, and another note. “Liz: This is one of the Cambridge novels – a double from the cottage – no need to return. Don’t feel an obligation to read it.”

And I’m utterly charmed. What another lovely gift – an orange Penguin like the first one, a reprint from 1968. Price in Canada $0.95.

Other books and other readers (and the conversation that arises) always manage to take me into wider waters.

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