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His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

His Whole Life (2015)

by Elizabeth Hay

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11017175,434 (3.76)27
At the outset, ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a beautiful lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. Over the next few pivotal years of Jim's youth, the novel moves from city to country, summer to winter, well-being to illness, as it charts the deepening bond between mother and son, even as their small family starts to fall to pieces. Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec was on the verge of seceding from Canada, this captivating novel is an unconventional coming-of-age story that draws readers in with its warmth, wisdom, its vivid sense of place, its searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of a family and those closest to it.… (more)
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    The Green Road by Anne Enright (RidgewayGirl)
    RidgewayGirl: Both explore families and forgiveness.

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» See also 27 mentions

English (16)  Piratical (1)  All languages (17)
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
My first time reading Elizabeth's work - I was very fortunate to receive an ARC via a Goodreads Giveaway. Beautifully written, heartbreaking and illuminating all at once. I'm glad I own a copy so I can go back and read it again! ( )
  JayeJ | May 21, 2019 |
Why isn't this better known?! It's a beautiful story. ( )
  ParadisePorch | Sep 24, 2018 |
Others have written great outlines and reviews. This is not my favorite book by Hay despite it taking place in two locales very familiar to me. The author seems to be trying too hard to create analogies and her attempts to let the backstory unfold slowly kept the characters at a distance. It felt like a book written specifically for book club discussions.

***Spoiler Alert!!***

While the relationship between a boy and his dog is a reliable coming-of-age mechanism, having three dogs die in the timeframe of the novel, and two of the deaths being so horrible is more than I could accept! ( )
  Rdra1962 | Aug 1, 2018 |
Oh Canada! In relation to a novel, Elizabeth Hay once wrote "Place is everything" but I didn't fully understand that until I read this book. It's a wonderful novel on so many levels and in so many aspects of the story. Hay really draws out the connection between people and their location through a focus on the contrast between the featured family's lives in Canada and in New York. The Quebec separatist issue - a matter about which I had no feelings and few thoughts - was brought alive and relevant. But to focus on place would do this story a grave injustice. To me the story was primarily about guilt and forgiveness; about relationships and the way people can damage each other and hence what they can do to ameliorate that damage. Elizabeth Hay is a marvellously perceptive and thoughtful person whose story draws on a rich variety of cultural connections. I have read all of Hay's novels and I bought an e-book version of this novel so I could get hold of it as soon as it was published, thinking I would try reading it on my phone. However the battery use issue that I hadn't thought about stopped me reading it (and I don't have a low-battery-use e-reader). So I had to wait until I could get a copy from my local library and I have only just read it. I'm now glad that I have an electronic copy, however, as I will treasure this book always and it will be one of those very rare books that I keep to re-read. ( )
  oldblack | May 18, 2017 |
This book is filled with two things: nothing and dead animals.

What a waste of time!!

I won a copy through Goodreads First Reads. ( )
  jenn88 | Apr 25, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
After eight books, a couple of Governor General’s Literary Award nominations, and a Scotiabank Giller Prize (for 2007’s Late Nights on Air) to her credit, readers have come to expect a certain level of excellence from Hay, and fans of her previous work will be well satisfied with this latest effort. Hay’s prose is as fluid and surprising as ever. Settings come alive through her signature combination of poetry and simplicity. ...While interweaving the referendum and Nancy’s personal life (and the effects of both on Jim) sometimes feels forced, there is more than enough in His Whole Life – themes of permanence, identity, forgiveness, and hope – to carry readers through the slower-moving sections. Read this book for the unmitigated beauty of Hay’s language, and the quality of her storytelling.

Hay’s compassionate and nuanced rendering of George is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement. There are weaknesses, including clunky exposition through dialogue and occasional lapses into cliché – the lonely young protagonist who is destined to become a writer; the repeated conceit of Nan rubbing a scar on her forehead to allude to past trauma – but these are minor irritations. More wearing is the sometimes too-transparent approach of tracing the outlines of characters around mythical and political templates: “George … was ‘the rest of the family’ the way English Canada was ‘the rest of Canada.’ That summer Quebec seemed serene in its power, secure, as if all packed up and ready to leave.” For such an assured writer, Hay relies on this device surprisingly often.

Quibbles aside, His Whole Life is a moving reflection on nationhood and the evolution of an unbreakable mother-son bond. Like Jim’s question in the car, it inspires deeper questions of loyalty, forgiveness and maturity – and reassures us that growing up doesn’t always have to mean growing away.
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...It was cold
Was the point of the dream
And the snow was falling

Which must be an old dream of families
Dispersing into adulthood

--George Oppen
For my son and daughter, reluctant Canadians, with love and gratitude.
First words
From the back seat of the old Chevette, heading north, the boy asked his question into the restless air. He had on a T-shirt big enough for a big man and he was being cooked by the late-August sun streaming in on his side.
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