His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

His Whole LifeI think I love this book mostly for the conversations! The latter are so natural and so interesting that, as you read them,  it almost feels like you are right in them and there is an eagerness to contribute which is not something I experience that often while reading. The book begins with a conversation between mother and son in which the son, while on a car trip in their old Chevette,  asks his mother, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

The mother, Nan (short for Nancy) temporarily avoids the question using humour: “Well”, she said, “there was that murder I committed last year.”  The question reappears throughout the remainder of the book. How would you answer it?  And for how long have you been burdened with the answer?

Nan does eventually offer this: “It seems to me the worst things are my thoughts, not things I’ve done.” When she asks her son Jim the question, he replies: “I don’t know.” Nan wonders what it is that is weighing down his thoughts.

Jim and his parents, Nan and George, are driving to his mother’s brother’s place on the lake of many bays. The Chevette had a bullet hole in its side. It had been parked on New Amsterdam Avenue (New York) and the bullet had travelled through eight volumes of Jim’s grandmother’s Encyclopedia Britannica which had been “occupying the back seat”. Nan had saved the bullet.

Jim’s father George had a ready answer to Jim’s question about the worst thing he’d done. It was about bullying another child at school when he was eight. Nan and George’s exchanges in this brief conversation tell us much about each of them.

My favourite parts of books are those which include literary references and there are many such references in this book. Jim and Nan are both readers and so is Nan’s friend Lulu who is an actor. Over martinis the women are catching up and Lulu says what she likes best in Albee’s A Delicate Balance is the line “Wow, what a good martini” and Nan explains to Jim that that is from a play. Later Nan recalls a dream in which she was caught in a flood and  felt like the old servant at the end of The Cherry Orchard. While sitting with Jim and Lulu she says “My life is out of Chekov” and Jim knew it was something she “liked to say and said often.” In the same conversation about martinis, Nan refers to an Alice Munro story and quotes the line, “Forgiveness in families is a mystery to me, how it comes or how it lasts.” They are both thinking of a major rift between Lulu and her brother Guy who has a property adjoining Nan’s brother’s cottage on the bay.

George returns to New York and work while summer begins for Jim: “the outstanding summer of his childhood when he had two dogs and two happy women who wanted his company. He didn’t miss his father as much as he thought he should, but he talked to him regularly on the phone and pitied his pale, unrugged days.”

As in all our lives there are undercurrents beneath the tranquility. Nan worries that Jim wouldn’t tell her his worst thing. She thinks something happened at school. She worries about other things as well: “How does a marriage that’s stopped working start working again?” And she worries about her first son, Blake who was named after Lulu, and who doesn’t want to be around her.

She worries about her mother: “her mother was going backward” in time and wearing clothes Nan used to wear when she was much younger like a trench coat she had when she was sixteen and a jacket she had when she was twelve. “And so pieces of her past went fishing in the rain” because the cottage had become “a repository for parts of their childhood”. She worries about Lulu and her relationship with her brother Guy.

She even worries about Quebec: she took Jim to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. She called Quebec “the other country” and explained to Jim how deep the English-Canadian insecurity went for those like herself who felt “ashamed, resentful, unforgiven”. “But for Jim it was another country inside another country. He was an American in Canada, and Quebec was not a problem. It was where Lévesque came from (Jim admired Lévesque). Trudeau too.”

She asks Jim “Would you like to live at the lake year-round and go to school in Lanark and learn French?”

Nan meets people she used to know many years ago: a school friend in particular that she didn’t have positive memories of. She “forgives” this person without thinking and then realizes that the person does not share Nan’s memories of the past. “Janet exerting her version of events. Janet painting herself as the beloved, sought-after one while she, poor Nan, had to knock on doors, begging for scraps of attention.” Nan tries to resolve this so as to make sense of it. “Get over it, she said to herself. But my God, the pain was shocking.”

There is so much more in this book than I have covered here. It is titled His  Whole Life but it actually includes several whole lives. It definitely includes Nan’s whole life and a good chunk of Lulu’s life except the years of her acting career, George’s whole life and a chunk of Guy’s life and Guy’s daughter Ducky. Oh, yes the lives of a couple of great dogs named Pog and Moon.

It’s what I call a “comfort” read : one that helps me sort out my own world and experience the comfort that others bring sorting out their worlds. Rather like having an extended conversation with someone you trust who doesn’t claim to have all the answers but who has learned how to navigate through some of the tough spots and who cares about the journey. Put the kettle on and prepare to sink into this one.


2 thoughts on “His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay”

  1. She does have a wonderful “print voice” doesn’t she? I am trying to decide which of her novels to reread first: right now Student of Weather and Alone in the Classroom are neck and neck in the race for first choice.

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