A boy, a car, a journey, a question: the first sentence of Elizabeth Day’s new novel goes like this:
From the back seat of the old Chevette, heading north, the boy asked his question into the restless air.
The restless air? The reader makes the mental adjustment: it’s not the air that’s restless, it’s the boy and probably his whole family. So why the transferred epithet at this early stage?
It sets the tone for a transferred-epithet-filled novel so full of anguish and poetic touches that you’ll find yourself reading it in a hushed voice. Jim, the boy in question, ‘read the air around people, the calm or seasick air’. His mother, Nancy, notices how ‘the sun was warming his sunrise bones’.
Goodness, Jim needs some company of boys his own age. He spends most of the seven years of this quiet novel on his own, roaming about by a lake in Canada (where the diseased trees are ominously losing their needles) or cooped up in a small New York apartment, with parents who annoy each other but worship him and depend on him for their equilibrium. I found the son-worship excruciating. For example, Nancy thinks:
How lucky had she been to have a son like Jim? A boy who loved books, who not only listened when she read the Odyssey to him but made the request for it night after night?
He’s the kind of boy who studies the labels at museums, knows all the Greek myths, and devours The Story of Canada. He reciprocates his mother’s love, and this can a bit sickly, too. ‘Jim loved to watch his mother absorb the truth. She became still and her shoulders dropped a little.’
But the thing is, Jim is not telling the whole truth. The question he asked into that restless air was, ‘What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ There’s something terrible he did once, at school, to do with telling on a friend. He’s tormented by this memory and his life is frozen by it, and it makes a pall of gloom hang over his teens. He longs for a dog, and eventually he has three in succession, but they all die.
This novel will be loved by the kind of readers who think ‘How true!’ when they read: ‘You run over a part of yourself when you run over something that has such a place in your heart.’ It will help if you care about Canadian politics, too, because alongside Jim’s family’s slow-burning psychological drama (will Nancy and her husband separate or will they stay together now he has a cancerous growth on his face?) runs the parallel story of the near-separation of Quebec from Canada in the 1995 referendum, and Nancy’s anguish about all that. She has a long-drawn-out discussion with some Canadian lumberjacks about politics, and one evening, when Jim arrives home from school, she turns to him and speaks the words, ‘I’ve been reading Trudeau’s memoirs.’ One’s heart sinks. There are some slightly clunky comparisons between the family drama and the political one:
Sometimes you wake up to the history beside you. The man lying beside you in bed. The province adjoining yours.
Hay is a thoughtful, delicate writer and I did put some ticks in the margin. I liked her description of the iciness of Nancy’s friend Lulu’s unaffectionate brother:
She felt pouring off him the kind of infernal coldness that pours off a Christmas tree carried from an outdoor lot into a warm house, to be set up in its metal stand.
That is good, as well as very lakeside-Canadian. I liked the description of New York after rainfall, when ocean breezes blow in from both sides: ‘It was a day when being in Manhattan was like being on a boat.’ And I liked the description of thin Jim drawing his gangly parents into a hug: ‘A kind of tent they formed. All poles and no canvas.’
The overriding emotion of the book, from the reader’s point of view, is Jim’s mother’s adoration for her son, every scruffy, boyish, vulnerable inch of him.
It’s actually quite scary, because you wonder how on earth she’ll manage when he leaves home.
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