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November 13, 2007

Thinking about Elizabeth Hay

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth Hay since Tuesday. How her novel came under such scrutiny in the days leading up to the prize. But first, two remarkable things about Hay. Did you remember that I quoted her here ages ago? Before I’d even heard of her, I picked her line “catching a ride on the coattails of literature” from her piece in Writing Life. I read the piece again tonight, and how it resonates. How I love her work, and can’t wait to get all caught up with it. Further, I love how Hay phrased an answer to one of her 12 or 2o Questions: “In my late twenties and early thirties, as the feminist I remain…” How perfect, the resoluteness of her position, and yet its mutability (which, of course, is only natural).

And then Late Nights on Air, which you might recall I read under a spell. I sang its praises loud and clear and proclaimed “a literary achievement” which I still believe, though I would concede the novel is imperfect. “Masterful” might be hyperbole, though what Hay did to convince me otherwise certainly was mastery of a sort. Do they give prizes for writers who are hypnotic?

Criticism towards Late Nights on Air tends to reference the relentless foreshadowing, which of course I noticed, but I bought it. Looking back upon the novel I see that the foreshadowing is an inevitable result of its nostalgic bent. Of course one reconstructing the past would underline all the signs they’ve missed, and this would also read strangely for a reader embarking upon the journey for the first time. Here, voice is much more significant than plot.

The “anti-climax” then? What culminates from all those signs of doom? About voice once again, I think. For what happens ultimately might be a let-down stylistically, but imagine having been there. Would that incident not resonate back and forth in time? Forever? Which is exactly what the voice is telling us it does.

And finally the ending, and its petering. (And how odd, by the way, is peter as a verb?) Though I do wonder if the novel could have been stronger had Hay left her characters alone back in time rather than bringing all of them up to date. But still, how could the novel not slow down as it does? How could anything that came after ever measure up to what went before? In the very first chapter it is stated that life was never more vivid than then. Surely Hay shows this?

There, I’ve finished my defending. Now I just can’t wait to read the novel once again.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about Elizabeth Hay”

  1. rona says:

    I’m with you Kerry. The complaints about foreshadowing reveal more about the limitations of reviewers (do I detect a herd mentality?) than they do about the novel itself. Elizabeth Hay is not leading the reader by the nose here; she’s enhancing the sense of rare and beautiful things on the point of being irretrievably lost. Even as the characters feel most alive, the landscape and the interpersonal connections to which they owe that aliveness are already dying. The foreshadowing reminds me a little of a Greek chorus, and without it the novel’s elegaic power would be diminished.

  2. Kerry says:

    I’m glad you agree; I felt as though the critics were ticking boxes at times. Rather than just assuming Elizabeth Hay slipped up, I tried to understand why she did what she did, and the effects of that, and the novel remained very whole to me. Good point also re. the chorus– I hadn’t thought of that!

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