Book Review: His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

hiswholelife Intimate portrait of family relationships

About the Book

Description (courtesy of Goodreads): Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a richly intimate world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.    At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What unfolds is a completely enveloping story that spans a few pivotal years of his youth. Moving from city to country, summer to winter, wellbeing to illness, the novel charts the deepening bond between mother and son even as the family comes apart.  Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec is on the verge of leaving Canada, this captivating novel is 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. Hay explores the mystery of how members of a family can hurt each other so deeply, and remember those hurts in such detail, yet find openings that shock them with love and forgiveness.

Book Facts

  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 308
  • Publication date: 9th March 2017
  • Genre: Literary Fiction

My Review (3.5 out of 5)

This is my first book by Elizabeth Hay and I can tell she is a talented writer. Some of the descriptions of landscape, in particular the lake scenes in Canada, are wonderful. However, I wasn’t quite as positive about other aspects of the book. The author has created a complex family structure with many ex-spouses, deceased spouses, deceased siblings and estranged siblings – perhaps a little too much tragedy in one family to be believable. I understand what the author was trying to do linking the debate over Quebec – should it separate from Canada or stay part of it – with the situation in Jim’s family but it seemed a little tenuous to me and I couldn’t really appreciate the importance of this as an issue. Perhaps it would have more significance to a Canadian reader. My other problem was that I didn’t find Jim a believable ten-year old as he is supposed to be at the beginning of the book. I kept having to remind myself he is supposed to be a young child. The character I felt was really successful was Lulu and the book dipped a little for me during the periods she wasn’t in it. So although I admired the quality of writing, the story didn’t really grab me.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Quercus Books/MacLehose Press, in return for an honest review.

In three words: Lyrical, intimate, family

Try something similar…The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey

hayAbout the Author

Elizabeth Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, the daughter of a high school principal and a painter, and one of four children. When she was fifteen, a year in England opened up her world and set her on the path to becoming a writer. She attended the University of Toronto, then moved out west, and in 1974 went north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. For the next ten years she worked as a CBC radio broadcaster in Yellowknife, Winnipeg, and Toronto, and eventually freelanced from Mexico. In 1986 she moved from Mexico to New York City, and in 1992, with her husband and two children, she returned to Canada, settling in Ottawa, where she has lived ever since.

Author Website


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