His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: boy, dog, family, Ontario, journey

Elizabeth Hay is an author I’ve heard mentioned many times. She won the Giller Prize in 2007 for Late Nights on Air and her name always crops up if you talk about Canadian literature for any length of time. I’ve been meaning to try her work for a while, so when a review copy of this book dropped through my letter box I decided it was the perfect opportunity to sample her writing.

His Whole Life is a beautifully written portrait of the relationship between ten-year-old Jim and his family. The book perfectly captures the subtle nuances of a child this age, showing how their innocence is slowly eroded.

The novel begins with the family driving from New York to Ontario for their summer holiday. Jim’s mother was born in Canada and his father in America. This divide becomes the central theme for the book – especially the longing for a place and time you can no longer be in:

“Do you remember,” they would say to each other, “that frosty Thanksgiving Monday when the leaves fell on the water like rain?” And in their minds they would be back in this moment when everything was still – there was no wind – yet everything was changing.

Each scene was created with immense skill and I was quickly drawn into this family’s life. Unfortunately there was little forward momentum and the detail became overwhelming. It captured ordinary life so well that I felt I’d heard it all before and I became bored by the tediousness of it all.

Much of the book was influenced by the closely fought 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec. I suspect it will have a much greater impact on those who are familiar with Canadian politics, but it generates discussions on separation and belonging that have relevance for the UK’s current referendum on EU membership.

His Whole Life is a beautifully written character study, with many fantastic scenes. It wasn’t quite to my taste, but anyone who enjoys slow moving character studies will gain a lot from reading it.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

….a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. A Life in Books

….a gorgeous and evocative work. Have Mat, Will Travel

….she really captures the often strange dynamic of families. Janice S

1950s Classics

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler (Jan 26 2010) Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: boy, family, world, awakening, growth

The Mountain and the Valley is a classic piece of Canadian literature, but is virtually unheard of in the UK. It was brought to my attention by David, a regular commenter on this blog. He persuaded me to give it a try, so I imported a copy from Canada. I can see why it is a treasured piece of Canadian literature (and why it is frequently on their school curriculum) but I fear it may be too depressing for some readers.

The book is a coming-of-age story which follows David as he grows up in a small Nova Scotian village at the beginning of the 20th century. It perfectly captures a child’s changing attitude to the world; showing how the innocence of childhood is lost as the difficulties of adulthood are slowly revealed.

I loved the first half of this book – the characters developed into engaging, but flawed, individuals and I was completely drawn into their difficult lives. It contained wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of life in this isolated community – I especially enjoyed reading about how they hunted, bartered, and supported others in times of hardship.

The writing quality was excellent throughout. Some might complain that the pace is too slow, but I was impressed by the vivid descriptions and the insight into the human psyche:

Each year marks the tree with another ring, the cow’s horn with another wrinkle. But until you were twenty, you were not marked. If one day was lost, the others closed over it so quickly that, looking back, there was a continuous surface. Everything was this side of the future. It was only when you thought back to the way you’d done the same thing you were doing now, in another year, that you could see any change in yourself.

Unfortunately the tone of the book became increasingly dark as it progressed. The unrelenting misery became overwhelming and I longed for the carefree happiness of childhood to return. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I wish the ending had been different.

Overall, this was an impressive book. It deserves a wider audience outside Canada and I hope that my review persuades a few more people to give it a try.





The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

Five words from the blurb: Alaskan, wilderness, snow, girl, magical

The Snow Child is a magical little book. It manages to balance on the fine line between magical realism and reality, ensuring the reader is kept guessing as to which side of that fence this book lies.

The story is set in the Canadian wilderness, where one couple relocate in an effort to forget the pain of being childless. One day they build a snowman in their garden and are surprised to wake up the next morning to discover that it has gone. They see a girl running through the woods and are sure their snowman has come to life, but is the child real or a figment of their over-active imagination?

Mabel was no longer sure of the child’s age. She seemed both newly born and as old as the mountains, her eyes animated with unspoken thoughts, her face impassive. Here with a child in the trees, all things seemed possible and true.

This book was quick and easy to read, but packed with an oppressive snowy atmosphere. The basic story is heavily influenced by a Russian fairytale and although this book did have a childlike feel it was tinged with the grief of being unable to produce a child. I often have difficulties with adult fairy-tales, but this book was so grounded in reality that I didn’t have this problem.

The characters weren’t that well rounded, but there was something about their simplicity that added to that magical feel. I connected to them straight away and felt their roller-coaster of emotions throughout.

It isn’t a particularly heavy read, but it is an entertaining one. It will make you smile and keep you guessing.

Recommended to anyone looking for a bit of escapism.


The thoughts of other bloggers

It hooked me from page one and did not let me go until I closed the final pages… The Book Whisperer

I wasn’t completely sure what was going on ….. but ultimately the charm and the strengths of this fairytale re-imagined won out over minor confusions and quibbles. Linus’s Blanket

Everything about it felt utterly authentic and completely effortless… Book Monkey

2009 2010 Other Prizes

Good to a Fault – Marina Endicott


Winner of 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, Finalist for 2008 Giller Prize.

Good to a Fault follows 43-year-old Clara as she makes a series of life changing decisions. The chain of events starts when Clara crashes her car into one containing a homeless family. At the hospital it is discovered that the mother of the homeless family is suffering from cancer. Feeling guilty (or just trying to be a good citizen?) Clara takes the three children and their grandmother into her home while the mother receives treatment for her cancer. Clara, used to living by herself, struggles to cope with with the sudden noise and complication of living with children, but she does her best to adapt to the difficult situation.

The book raises interesting questions about whether it is possible to be selfless, helping others just because you are a nice person; or whether there is always another motive. In this case Clara could be viewed as trying to obtain the family she has always wanted, secretly hoping that the mother will die so that she can adopt them. Clara’s true thoughts are kept cleverly hidden, leaving the reader to decide for themselves how virtuous she really is.

It is an interesting premise, but unfortunately I found the book far too long. The middle section really dragged for me and I felt that at least 200 pages of this 480 page book could have been removed without losing much. The writing was mainly dialogue, so it moved along at a reasonable pace, but this book had the distinct disadvantage of being read straight after Beside the Sea. The relationship between the children just didn’t jump off the page in the same way and I found their characters quite flat and lacking in emotion.

The ending was very well done, but I’m afraid this didn’t make up for the slowness of the rest of the book.

Overall, I recommend this to those who are looking to read a quiet book about some nice characters and anyone interested in what it means to be a good person.


The majority of people loved this book:

The book is so good I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about it. Compulsive Overreader

…a bit unwieldy and much too long. S. Krishna’s Books

….there is a quiet intensity about it that completely drew me in. She Reads and Reads

I drank in every word of this perfectly true-to-life (but never boring) book. The Writer’s Pet

2009 Other Prizes

Red Dog, Red Dog – Patrick Lane

 Long listed for the 2008 Giller Prize

Red Dog, Red Dog has intrigued me for a while. A few people were convinced it would make the 2009 Booker long list and so I almost picked it up last year. For some reason it never quite made it to the top of the TBR pile then, but almost a year on I finally got round to reading it.

Red Dog, Red Dog is set in a small town in British Columbia, Canada. The book centres on one troubled family: a violent husband, a depressed mother and her two troubled sons.  Much of the book is narrated by their dead baby sister, which sounds a bit weird but it actually worked very well. The book follows their lives over the course of one week in 1958. The short time scale meant that there wasn’t room for a complex plot, but their relationships and emotions were well explored.

My enjoyment of this book fluctuated massively as I read it. Some scenes captivated me, drawing me into the troubled world and creating a strong emotional bond between me and the boys; but then I’d read several chapters in a row without becoming involved at all. The writing became very passive and I began to lose interest. I think this was a deliberate plot devise as the writing kept switching between total engagement and boredom, but I found it very frustrating.

The tone of the book was quite dark:

The dead came crowding in, each with a story, what happened and when, who was there and why. Most faded into fragments, faint murmurs, the stories rising as if from narrow caves, the sounds distorted, vowels drawn out into echoes, consonants clipped and rattling like a snake’s tail whirring in the sagebrush, the same kind of warning, the dead telling me things that they thought I needed to know, tales from so far back they no longer had any meaning except to the ones who told them.

The whole book was quite emotionally draining so I recommend that you are in the right frame of mind before attempting it.

Overall, I’m going to sit on the fence on this one. It had moments of brilliance alongside some very dull sections. I think you’ll have to make up your own mind!


Have you read Red Dog, Red Dog?


Canada Reads 2010

A guest post written by Lija from The Writer’s Pet, who recently emigrated from Canada to the UK.

My home country’s population hovers around the paltry 30 mill mark (with three point three Canucks per square kilometre), but we seem to have a disproportionate knack for producing authors. Maybe it’s our thing (“cold” cannot be our thing, ok?).

Naturally, I’m feeling very patriotic about this year’s installation of Canada Reads, a CBC program (or “programme,” if you will) celebrating five Canadian books chosen (and ultimately defended) by five public figures. Everyone who wants to follow along has three months to read these books, and in March there’s a week-long series of radio debates about the merits of each. Titles will be knocked out until the “Read” of the year remains. 

This whole idea gives me the warm fuzzies – I get an image of the entire nation, deep in the middle of winter, all sitting next to their radios and wood-burning cook-stoves with a pile of books by their side. 

Past winning Canada Reads books include < ?php echo amazon('0330301837','In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje ‘); ?> and < ?php echo amazon('0571224008','A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews ‘); ?> .

In the literary ring this year:


Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

< ?php echo amazonim('1846271657'); ?>

< ?php echo amazon(1846271657,'Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler’); ?>

< ?php echo amazonim('0349108390'); ?>

< ?php echo amazon(0349108390,'Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland’); ?> 

< ?php echo amazonim('1590512162'); ?>

< ?php echo amazon(1590512162,'The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy’); ?>

< ?php echo amazonim('0099740516'); ?>

< ?php echo amazon(0099740516,'Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald’); ?>

I’ve yet to read any of these, but will be starting with Good to a Fault. I’m a bit daunted by Fall on Your Knees (which Jackie handily reviewed here ), but will probably tackle it next.

PS. I couldn’t possibly do a cross-cultural post without listing my favourite Canadian authors: Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood (natch), Alice Munro, Elizabeth Hays, Carol Shields, Miriam Toews, Barbara Gowdy. And on the YA side – L.M. Montgomery, Monica Hughes, Kit Pearson (her best work is actually a trilogy featuring two British war guest children staying in Toronto).

PPS. I sure do like a lot of female authors.

Which books would you nominate for a Britain Reads challenge?

They don’t have to be brand-new, but they do have to be by a UK author. Bonus points if you can name a public figure that you’d like to defend the book.