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A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
on 31 January 2002
1930s Saskatchewan......and the Hardy Family in their respective ways are living up to their name. Ernest, brooding and increasingly withdrawn from a world which has deprived him of his wife and two-year-old son, takes consolation in the routines and rituals required to extract a meagre existence from the harsh and unforgiving landscape. Lucinda, undemonstrative and unfailingly loyal, has accepted the inevitability of putting her own ambitions on hold while there are other, more pressing responsibilities to take on. Norma Joyce, many years younger and several degrees plainer than her sister, is constantly questioning, pushing, determined to carve out an identity for herself and make sense of her father's palpable dislike of her.
Into this maelstrom strolls Maurice Dove, charismatic, engaging and criminally careless with his affections. For most people, it seems obvious that he and the attractive Lucinda will be drawn towards each other. Norma Joyce however has a totally different agenda and is not accustomed to giving way to anyone.
From Saskatchewan to Ontario and back again, spanning a period of almost 40 years, Elizabeth Hay describes Norma Joyce's journey to self-discovery and eventual redemption. It is a journey filled with pain, loss and almost unbearable dignity in the face of the worst that life can throw at her and Ms Hay's touch is astonishing for someone writing a first novel. In these days of the bludgeon, it is an absolute joy to come across someone who can convey the most extreme of emotions as much through what is left unsaid as anything else. She has a sense of the innate cruelty of life which Anita Shreve would envy and she is capable of creating setpieces which leave the reader aching for some alternative outcome, even as she/he is forced to nod in acknowledgement that this is how things are in the real world. I defy anyone to read the passage describing Norma Joyce's final moments with Ernest without offering silent applause.
It is all too fashionable nowadays, the moment a novel is set in this sort of emotional and topographical territory, to start tossing around the names of Annie Proulx, Carol Shields, Alice Hoffman etc. No doubt it is too early to start burdening a burgeoning talent with such invidious comparisons and the responsibility for such a strong literary heritage. But make no mistake about it....Elizabeth Hay can write. She really can. If you read only one book this month, I urge you to try this one.