Villain

I finally got with the times this year and discovered Elizabeth Hay, devouvering first her Giller-winning Late Nights on Air and then her newest novel His Whole Life.

Both books share a parallel story structure. In the foreground are the characters with their everyday trials - in the case of Late Nights, a group of co-workers working at a radio station in Yellowknife and in the case of His Whole Life, a family on the verge of divorce. And looming in the background are larger forces, big political events. In Late Nights it's a proposed gas pipeline that has many in the First Nations community up in arms. In His Whole Life it's Quebec's historic '95 referendum. I've always been fascinated by this structure but it's a tricky thing to pull off. How to not draw too fine a point on the parallels between the stories? How to hold the big things in the background when their natural position is front and centre?

The answer is character. And here is something Hay excels at. Her characters are precisely drawn, flawed, messy, real, and as a result, deeply compelling. They - not the big events - are the through line that pull the narrative along. In His Whole Life, the character who really struck me was George.

STOP READING HERE IF YOU DON'T WANT SPOILERS.

George is petty, jealous, a coward, and underlying it all is his staunch, infuriating, refusal to be happy. He acts out in cruel ways that hurt those around him. He's unreasonably jealous of his wife's relationship with her best friend. He refuses to get treatment for a cancer, forcing his family to bear witness to this slow acting suicide. He has no friends. His birth family doesn't much care for him. And no wonder.

But George, unlike a Disney villain, is not one-dimensional. And here's the thing that Hay does so well: she gives George moments of true tenderness, allows us glimpses of the bigger man he could be if only...what? If only his first wife and elder brother hadn't died young. If only his second wife hadn't left him for a woman. If only he didn't think of himself as such a loser. It is possible then to feel sorry for George, maybe even sympathetic. Because Hay has such empathy for him, gives the reader a window on the source of his wounds. And because he's so real, he becomes recognizable. We all know a George, don't we?

And these complex feelings of loathing and sympathy for a person we think we know, this is the formula for a compulsive read. Who cares about the Referendum when there's a truly interesting, nuanced, personal family drama unfolding? The illusion that we're reading about real people is what keeps us turning the page, to find out what happens in the end.