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His Whole Life

By Elizabeth Hay

ISBN: 9781681444789

Author Website: www.elizabethhay.com  


His Whole LifeBrought to you by OBS reviewer Una


Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, award-winning novelist Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life transports readers to an emotionally rich landscape populated by unforgettable characters, yet overshadowed by a sense of loss.

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, it’s searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of a family and those closest to it.

Writing at the height of her powers, the award-winning Elizabeth Hay explores the mystery of how family members can wound each other so deeply, and remember those hurts in such detail, yet find surprising ways to make room for love, and even forgiveness.


I didn’t know whether I would enjoy this book but as I continued to read the story unraveled and I became engrossed in the characters. Elizabeth Hay has the ability through her use of poetic prose and vivid imagery to immerse the reader into any setting. His Whole Life was no exception. I was drawn into the story by the parallels of the characters’ lives and Canada’s fight to keep the country’s politics from dividing the country into two separate nations.

His Whole Life tells the story of a rivalry of two brothers, a mother and oldest son’s estrangement, blended family issues, a brother sister who can’t seem to reconcile, a husband and wife’s complicated marriage made more complicated by a cancer diagnoses and the visit of a best friend, all seen through 10 year old Jim’s eyes who has issues of his own and really just wants a dog. Jim is torn between his Canadian mother whose heart has never left Eastern Ontario’s cottage country and his rather morose father who is determined to remain in New York City.  I certainly felt the pull of nature vs urban life, hurt vs forgiveness, independence vs duty and life vs death that Jim encountered throughout the story. This with the backdrop of Quebec’s close referendum to separate made for interesting parallels to Jim’s life.

By the end of the story everything is not totally resolved but I knew Jim was whole and life would continue with its inevitable ups and downs. Not an easy read but enjoyable. I look forward to other Elizabeth Hay novels.