Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air ranks alongside Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved as one of the finest contemporary novels I’ve read. Notable for its beautiful descriptions of the natural world, Hay’s novel shows a similar perception in its portrayal of relationships as Hustvedt’s. It’s one of those novels I pressed into the hands of friends and family after I read it. Unsurprisingly, then, I was eagerly anticipating His Whole Life, which turned out to be an equally nuanced coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum on the separation of Quebec from Canada and its aftermath.
Jim is ten years old when the novel opens as he, his Canadian mother and his American father make their way from New York City to Canada where his uncle and aunt have a lakeside house. For Jim it’s an welcoming place: he’s reunited with Duke, the ancient dog he adores and escapes the opprobrium that follows him around the school playground. For Nan, his sharp-tongued mother, it’s an annual homecoming making years of living in a marriage which is all but coming apart bearable. For George, it feels like a prison, uncomfortable and unsettling. When her brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car crash nine months later, Nan decides to go back to the lake telling George that she will stay until Duke dies having one lost dog on her conscience already, and takes Jim with her. Shortly after they’ve settled in a piratical figure arrives, reminding Jim of his beloved Treasure Island. Lulu is Nan’s dearest childhood friend, unseen for years and now in the midst of the latest in a seemingly endless series of spats with her brother who runs the family farm. An idyllic summer begins for Jim in which he has the company of not one but two dogs and the devoted attention of two women who endlessly chew the fat about everything, from Lulu’s disinheritance to the question of Québécois independence. Hay’s novel follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens.
‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. It’s a novel deeply conscious of the past and the far-reaching consequences of our actions, nostalgic almost elegiac in tone with the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation at its heart. Hay has a beautifully honed turn of phrase: ‘Nan has once told Jim how restful it was to be immersed in a past that was over’; Nan thinks of her young son ‘What a moody stripling he was, Christopher Robin as Job’; Lulu and her brother are ‘always fighting leftover fights’. Jim is a memorable character, too mature for his years as the children of troubled marriages so often are, used to overhearing too many adult conversations. If I have a criticism it is that the splits within the family were a little too neatly mirrored by the political divide between the two sides of the referendum question but Canadian readers may beg to differ. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. I have hopes that it will snag the Baileys Prize judges’ attention.