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Fiction Family Life

His Whole Life

by (author) Elizabeth Hay

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Mar 2016
Family Life, Literary, Coming of Age
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2016
    List Price

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"Hay is a wise and astute observer of adolescence. . . . His Whole Life is a moving reflection on nationhood and the evolution of an unbreakable mother-son bond." The Globe and Mail

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 is at risk: family, nature, country, 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 an enveloping story that spans a few pivotal years of Jim's youth and sets out competing claims on everyone's love: for Canada over New York; for a mother over a father; a friend over a husband; one son over another. With her trademark honesty, wisdom, vivid sense of place, and nuanced characters, Hay deftly charts the deepening bond between mother and son even as the family threatens to come apart.
Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada, this captivating novel is an unconventional coming-of-age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. With grace and power, she 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. This is vintage Elizabeth Hay at the height of her powers.

About the author

A former CBC Radio host, interviewer and documentary maker in Winnipeg, Yellowknife and Toronto, Elizabeth Hay spent eight years in New York where a profound longing for home propelled her to write Captivity Tales. In a poetic blend of personal narrative, biography, history and literary fiction, she tells the stories of other Canadians who came to New York and their experiences away from home. She is the author of three other books: The Only Snow in Havana, Crossing the Snow Lines, and Small Change. She lives in Ottawa.

Elizabeth Hay's profile page


  • Short-listed, Canadian Authors Association Literary Award
  • Short-listed, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Editorial Reviews

FINALIST 2015 ­– Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

"Hay creates enormous spaces with few words, and makes the reader party to the journey, listening, marvelling . . ." —Globe and Mail

"[She has an] evocative grace that brings to mind Annie Proulx." —Washington Post

"Hay has a delightful, deadpan wit, the kind that sneaks up on you." —New York Times

"Hay is a master of characterization. In their fallibility, their moral struggles and their conflicted desires, [her] characters . . . ring utterly true." —Toronto Star

"Hay is capable of sending palpable chills down the reader's spine. . . ." —Quill & Quire

"A master storyteller . . ." —Winnipeg Free Press
"With this beautiful story of a close mother-son bond, Elizabeth Hay reminds us how difficult it is to love a child deeply and then to let him go." —Lynn Thomson, author of Birding with Yeats
"Set on the cusp of personal and national change, His Whole Life is a resonant and penetrating novel that explores the complex evolution of love and affection through a rich array of relationships. At this story's centre are a mother and son so richly realized their delights, pleasures, and aches become the reader's. Elizabeth Hay deftly—in elegant and luminous prose—explores how life can betray us or bring us to the surface, and all the subtle ways that one human being can fail, or serve, another." —Rogers Writers' Trust jury citation

Other titles by Elizabeth Hay