Unique Canadian Novel is a Reading Experience


Sarah Sobanski

Reader’s Release is a monthly column where members of Cavan-Monaghan Libraries review a book from the library’s new monthly releases to keep you updated on the hottest reads available to you locally. 

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? – A question you might well want to answer after connecting with Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life. It will set the tone for the rest of the book – and hopefully like Jim, you’ll find the answer.

Book Cover. Photo: CC.

Book Cover. Photo: CC.

Hay writes in beautiful memories that keep you well seated in immersive dreams – if you have time for reminiscing. The Scotiabank Giller Prize winner is all details and languid sentences. Maybe it should be so as the novel is written from the perspective of the main character, a 10-year-old named Jim. From the bullet hole in the old Chevette that his mother keeps with his baby teeth, to the way his uncle’s dog always breathes like he’s too hot, to the three times repeated verb of ‘flicking’ when setting the scene, Hay’s attention is inspiring but asks the reader to pay more for it than most novels.

Jim’s mother and father are in a failing marriage that never fails far enough, stuck between two places – his mother is from Canada, his father from New York. Jim is stuck somewhere in between, attached to both but not. Hay draws on vague emotions we’ve all felt and narrows in on the hurts we assume are individual and personal, but aren’t in the grand scheme of things. Mostly, it’s like listening to a sad song. There’s a comfortable calm and melancholy to which the reader willingly submits, and at the end there’s no discernable resolution, but you’re glad you’ve listened.

The novel is perfect for settling into fall, which is always a little sad. It stirs memories of your first dog when Jim’s mother finds a dumped pup and allows him to stay, the sound of the boat at the dock heard from the cottage at night, or hearing your parents’ conversations that you weren’t supposed to hear and remembering a time when Canada faced a similar confusion trying to establish its’ identity- with or without Quebec. The simple and blatant parallels between an ‘unhappy Canada’ and Jim’s parent’s unhappy marriage keep the novel grounded.

For those who enjoy a book where they can picture every moment of hardship and hope, Hay finds reality in her imagery without seeming idealistic. His Whole Life is available at the Millbrook library as a part of their September new releases.

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