Tag Archives: Elizabeth Hay

All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Elizabeth Hay’s memoir for the same reason I read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: I’d enjoyed several of her novels very much, in particular Late Nights on Air. Truth be told, though, aren’t we all fascinated by other people’s families, perhaps looking for similarities with our own or thankful that ours isn’t anything like the writer’s? Hay’s relationship with her parents had always been a tricky one but when they move across Ontario into a retirement home just down the road from Hay and her husband, she finds herself struggling with their slow decline into decrepitude. All Things Consoled is a recounting of those years and the family history that came before.

Gordon and Jean Hay married in 1943 when they were twenty-four. He was a history teacher, proud of his long career but never confident, strict both at home and at school. She became an artist, painting pictures of the natural world and enjoying a small degree of success while determined to carve out some space for herself. Hay was the third of their four children, seemingly locked in a difficult relationship with a father who found it impossible to praise her achievements and whose temper resulted in violent punishments until she was twelve. When the family spent a year in London, the world opened up to her, paving the way to university. Visits home to her parents were hedged about with disappointment and dismay at her mother’s apparent inability to stand up to her father’s irascibility. Her parents seem determinedly hunkered down in the family home but after a medical crisis and the beginnings of her mother’s dementia, they agree to move. It’s Hay who steps forward, taking responsibility although she’s unsure quite why she’s done so. For three years, she visits her parents daily, trying to cope with the sheer grind of caring for two people, themselves slowly ground down by the long slow process of extreme old age. Several years after her parents’ deaths, Hay sets down her reflections in the hope of coming to an understanding of her relationship with them.

I arrived at their rooms and here were the two vivid giants in my life – still massive no matter how shrunken they had become, while for them I suppose I had grown huge  

Some of Hay’s descriptions will be all too painfully familiar to those whose own parents have endured a long decline or seen others at close quarters – hard enough when the relationship has been a good one. Inevitably, her book is as revealing about herself as it is about her parents, their scratchy yet close relationship and her attempts to understand them, particularly her father whose approval she’d craved and, eventually, realises she’d had all along. Hay’s use of langauge is as graceful in her non-fiction as in her fiction, and her demented mother’s poetic expressions are both poignantly apt and beautiful. It reminded me of Blake Morrison’s long-ago bestseller And When Did You Last See Your Father ?, no small compliment. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own stories but Hay’s memoir has a loud ring of truth about it. Let’s hope the writing of it helped soothe her hurts.

Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

I follow a couple of Canadian bloggers whose recommendations often hit the spot for me – Naomi at Consumed by Ink, in particular. Frustratingly, many of the books she reviews aren’t Cover imagepublished here in the UK. I know I can get them via Amazon but I’ve sworn off them until they treat their staff like human beings. I do have hopes of visiting Canada one of these days and it’s clear I’ll need at least one extra suitcase for the trip home. In the meantime, here are five favourite Canadian novels I’ve managed to get my hands on, two with links to full reviews.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air is set in the summer of 1975. Harry has returned from his Toronto television job with his tail between his legs and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who occupies the late-night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. Hay acquaints her readers intimately with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care about them deeply. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

The Republic of Love is my favourite of the late lamented Carol Shield’s novels. It’s a thoroughly satisfying love story in which Fay – a folklorist with a particular interest in mermaids and impossibly high romantic expectations based on her ideas about her parents’ relationship – and Tom – a talk-show host with what can only be charitably described as a chequered romantic past – try to find a way to be together. The schlock potential here is high but Shields is far too sharp an observer to fall in to that trap with the result that the book is both wry and touching. Not a prize winner, but an absolute delight.Cover image

Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known of Canada’s contemporary novelists. The Heart Goes Last may not be the obvious choice from her prodigious list of novels but it’s the one that brought me back to her work after a long break. In the nearish future a homeless couple signs up to a project in which they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts and embroiled in a plan that will blow the lid off the scheme’s increasingly sinister goings on. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers into this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite, Atwood’s novel has some very serious points to make.

Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Cover imageWith great wit and humanity, Rohinton Mistry’ A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India through a cast of vividly drawn characters. Determinedly clinging to her independence, recently widowed Dina sets up as a seamstress, recruiting two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, and taking in Maneck, a student, as a lodger. What begins out of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each with a demon to defeat: Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in turn must cope with the fallout from stepping outside the caste system. Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.

Any books by Canadian authors you’d like to recommend?

Blasts from the Past: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Way back in my bookselling days I remember being given a proof of Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs. It was pleasant enough but didn’t make a huge impression on me. Years later, now working on a magazine, I was sent a copy of Late Nights on Air and became completely enthralled by it. It’s about a group of people operating a radio station in a Canadian backwater which may sound a little dull but Hay’s writing and characterisation are such that it’s utterly entrancing.

In the summer of 1975, Harry has returned with his tail between his legs from his television job in Toronto and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who has the late night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. It’s a book suffused with a quiet loneliness and longing. Hay intimately acquaints her readers with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care deeply about what happens to them. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of March’s paperbacks stays here in the UK for a while then wanders around all over the place finally arriving at one of my favourite literary destinations. Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath begins in August 1912 and follows three friends who have grown up together in the slums of Walworth where they’re expected to live out their lives. When the more adventurous of the three hears of a scouting trip he’s determined to go, taking the other two with him with tragic results. The blurb describes it as ‘a song of south London, of working class families with hidden histories, of a bright and complex world long neglected’. I’ve enjoyed Duffy’s previous London novels – she has a knack for catching the atmosphere of the place, and what a great jacket.

London – or at least the City – is the old stomping ground of sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay who is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him in Jim Powell’s Trading Futures. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one.

Marriage and infidelity also run through Anna Raverat’s Lover. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.

Keeping it in the family, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life is a coming-of-age novel which follows Jim Cover imageand 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. I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Hay’s nuanced understated fiction – her Late Nights on Air is one of my favourite novels. If you haven’t read her yet, please do. You won’t be disappointed

Complex family dynamics are a theme of Neil Hegarty’s adroit Inch Levels, set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has. It’s an engaging novel which shows rather than tells, richly repaying close attention.

Finding his family is on the mind of an American student with debts to settle in Miroslav Pensov’s Stork Mountain. He heads for the village of Klisura, deep in the Strandja Mountains on the Bulgarian side of the border with Turkey within spitting distance of Greece, hoping to sell his family’s land and track down his incommunicado grandfather. Beautifully expressed and often very funny, Stork Mountain weaves folklore, dreams and history through its long and winding narrative, often turning back on itself. It’s not an easy read, occasionally bewildering with its many stories, myths and legends overlapping with history, but it’s worth the effort.

Klisura once found itself part of the Communist state, the eventual result of the turbulent political upheavals which twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely finds herself caught up in. Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist follows Gerty to Moscow where she takes up a position as a governess. Three years after her arrival, revolution transforms the city throwing the bourgeois into panicky bag-packing but Gerty decides to stay, becoming involved in a communal living experiment led by a charismatic inventor. His sudden disappearance leaves Gerty alone and vulnerable.

Cover imageStraining for a link to Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours but I think I it’s beyond me.  Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.

That’s it for March’s paperbacks which are many and varied, studded with several gems. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my reviews for Trading Futures, His Whole Life, Inch Levels and Stork Mountain, or to a fuller synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with part one, it’s here – March hardbacks are here and here.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay: One big happy family

Cover imageElizabeth 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.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed.  What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:

A God in Ruins                                The Heart Goes Last                The Versions of Us

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither       The Other Side of the World                 Exposure

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Under the Visible Life                    The Book of Memory                    Paulina & Fran

Cover imageCover imagePaulina & Fran

His Whole Life                                 The Lives of Women                    The Ballroom

Cover imageCover imageThe Ballroom

The Long Room                           The Mountain Can Wait                            Tender

Cover imageCover imageTender

Early Warning                               My Name is Lucy Barton                Love Me Back

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I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.

Books to Look Out For in March 2016

Cover imageHope springs eternal as we edge towards the beginning of spring in the UK. With winter a bit of a non-event for half of the country, I’m wondering if we’ll notice its arrival at all. Plenty to keep you occupied indoors if it turns out to be another washout, though. It’s an all female line-up for March. Two of my choices are by writers whose books I’ve already read and enjoyed and three are new to me. I’ll begin with the one I’m most looking forward to, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life. Late Nights on Air is one of those quietly beautiful books that I’d loved to have seen piled up on bookshop tables. Alone in the Classroom didn’t quite match it for me but I have hopes for this one which follows a young boy over the few years which will shape his adult life. It’s described by the publishers as ‘an unconventional coming of age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. It draws readers in with its warmth, wisdom, its vivid sense of place, its searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of one family and those closest to it’ listing many of the qualities I admired in Late Nights on Air.

Way back in my early blogging days I posted a review of Judith Hermann’s Alice, a lovely, gentle novella, beautifully written. Her new one, Where Love Begins, sounds very different. Stella leads a prosaically happy life. Because her husband travels for work, she and her daughter are often alone in the house. One day, a stranger knocks on her door and asks to come in saying he only wants to talk to her. She sends him away but he persists day after day, undeterred when she tries to confront him. Described by the publishers as ‘a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel’ it sounds riveting.Cover image

Of the three novels I’ve not yet read, Anna Raverat’s Lover sounds the most enticing to me. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.

I still haven’t got around to reading Deborah Levy’s Man Booker shortlisted Swimming Home, much rated for its writing, I gather. Her new novel, Hot Milk, ‘explores the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis, which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that its seems worth investigating.

Cover imageOttessa Moshfegh’s Eileen had already caught my eye then I read a review by Naomi over at Consumed by Ink – it was published in Canada a little while ago. The eponymous Eileen is a disturbed young woman caring for her alcoholic father and working as a secretary in a boys’ prison. She passes her dull days fantasising about escape and her nights and weekends shoplifting and stalking one of the prison guards. The arrival of an attractive counsellor sparks what Eileen thinks is a friendship but proves to be her undoing in what the publishers call a ‘Hitchcockian twist’. Naomi describes the novel as ‘delightfully morbid’, a book she couldn’t put down, which is more than enough to persuade me. Great jacket, too!

That’s it for March hardbacks. As ever if you want to know more, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or, in the case of Eileen, Naomi’s review. Paperbacks shortly…