His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay
Reviewed by John Delacourt
During the worst days leading up to the Quebec referendum of 1995, it was a common enough notion, put forth by those on one side of the question, to liken the state of the nation to a marriage headed for a breakup. There were two distinct souls within Canada, Anglophone and Francophone, brought together by shared ideals and a dream of a bright future together, but somewhere along the way they had drifted apart and there we were, living through an era of irreconcilable differences. It was a way of framing the debate that had its uses, and perhaps even a certain poignancy to a demographic staring down middle age, with attendant regrets about first or second marriages and worries for the children raised in such circumstances. Yet of course it was a fiction, one notable for the Canada(s) it left out of the telling and a degree of solipsism that seems at best quaint in the decades that have passed. It is testament to Ottawa author Elizabeth Hay’s craft as a novelist that she can take such a notion as her point of departure with her new work His Whole Life and make of it something vivid if not arresting, melancholic if not tragic in moments, as she focuses on one family’s dissolution during the time of the referendum up to the death of he-who-apparently-haunts-us-still, Pierre Trudeau.
The family in question consists of Nan, the Canadian mother of Jim, the boy whose character takes shape in the years of the novel, and George, his American father, “the sort of disingenuous person who was mean at heart and would not admit it,” even as he approaches his own death from cancer over the course of the narrative. The son’s coming of age begins with a trip to the family cottage in eastern Ontario, and it is here that Hay’s prose finds its footing, with all the fine grained texture and warmth of tone necessary to make arid incompatibility and the impasse between generations affecting, even if there are lingering, nagging questions as to what spark could have ever flamed up between Nan and George to create a marriage, or how an awkwardly aestheticized love between mother and son (the boy’s penis is at one point likened to a summer sky in its softness) could ever form the kind of connection capable of deepening over the years.
Yet a deepening does occur. With George’s inexorable reckoning with mortality, managed with a keen sense of pacing, both mother and son discover reserves of strength and compassion that bring greater light and shade to Hay’s depictions. Hay’s minor characters, such as Nan’s actor friend Lulu and George’s brother Martin, invoke the larger possibilities within Nan for love and sensual connection – for it is her whole life rather than Jim’s that truly remains in the foreground. The thematic scaffolding of a Canada tearing itself apart falls away in the latter part of the novel to reveal something of sterner stuff, a meditation on the geography of the heart, carefully mapped through tragedy and forgiveness.
His Whole Life is published by McClelland and Stewart.