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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 Ernest, brooding and increasingly withdrawn from a world which has deprived him of his wife and two-year-old son, takes consolation in the routines and rituals required to extract a meagre existence from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.
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Setting her story in the Saskatchewan Dust Bowl in the 1930s, where "children grew up never tasting an apple and thinking Ontario was heaven," Hay tells of Norma Joyce and her sister Lucinda, opposite in appearance and personality, who have little to keep their minds and hearts occupied on the flat prairie and on their farm, where they have only their stern and uncommunicative father for company. The sisters fixate on the homely details of their lives, beautifully and vividly described by Hay--strange, little Norma Joyce collecting (or stealing) bones, buttons, and small objects, which she displays in the unused room which once belonged to her mother, while shy, beautiful Lucinda cleans every corner of the house and concentrates on being the perfect housekeeper. Into this emotional void steps Maurice Dove, a handsome student of weather and fascinating story teller, who quickly becomes the focus of both sisters' attentions while he stays with them and studies the native grasses which have apparently protected their farm from the ravages of the wind and weather.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the story could have become a romantic pot-boiler, at this point, but Hay's insights into the differing thoughts and motivations of all the characters, all of them with faults, combined with her beautifully realized setting, her lovely, often quiet, descriptions of weather and nature in all seasons, and her use of common sights and objects as symbols make this an absorbing story of a woman's search for fulfillment. As Norma Joyce grows from a spunky 9-year-old, suffering from early puberty, to a woman in her mid-40s, moving from the farm to Ontario and New York and back, Hay shows how external social forces, combined with Norma Joyce's powerful memories of the farm and Maurice Dove, continually affect the choices she makes as an adult, even when she urgently attempts to free herself from these influences and take full control of her life.
Sometimes selfish to the point of cruelty in her desire to manipulate outcomes, Norma Joyce is not a typical "heroine," but Hay creates such believable contexts for her behavior that the reader will have no difficulty empathizing, if not, identifying, with her. This is an absorbing story of a woman's attempt to come to grips with her past--both the good and the bad--and to use it in forging a fulfilling life in the present.
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on 10 May 2002
A fantastic book. An amazing journey with Norma Joyce through her life with its changing landscapes and weather. Hay manages to put the reader right into the head of Norma Joyce throughout the novel, and truely brings her to life. As much as I love Shipping News by E Annie Prolux, this rates even better.
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on 10 April 2015
The descriptions of the farms "out West" and of Ottawa are excellent and give the reader a real feel of the desolation
of the prairies during the drought and the winters and contrast it well with the wealth of Ottawa. I enjoyed the main character
and had hoped for a "happier ending" for her. The book showed the difficulties faced by unwanted pregnancies and their effect
on the whole family.
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on 13 February 2004
This is a fantastic novel by a writer I'd never previously heard of. Ernest Hardy unfairly blames his 3-year-old daughter Norma Joyce for the accidental death of his son (the exact circumstances are left in doubt, but clearly holding a grudge against a 3-year-old is unreasonable, if understandable). His subsequent favouritism towards her elder sister Lucinda warps both girls as they grow up, and sets the stage for a family conflict of Shakespearean proportions. Even from the age of nine, Norma Joyce begins to plot to steal attractive meteorology student Maurice Dove from her sister. When she (inevitably) succeeds, it is only to discover that Maurice wasn't such a fantastic prize anyway; but Lucinda never forgives her.
Weather is very much a recurring theme: it is used both literally (Hay writes in a positively numinous way about the Canadian prairie landscape, with extremely beautiful language) and as a metaphor for the way random bad luck (what Iris Murdoch would call "the contingent"), such as the death of Norma Joyce's younger brother, can sweep into lives and lay them waste.
Norma Joyce is an utterly convincing character, as indeed is Lucinda: there is a fairytale intensity in the contrast between blonde, classically beautiful "good girl" Lucinda and short, dark "bad girl" Norma Joyce; but of course, both are complex characters who finally escape the roles imposed on them by their father. I can think of few fictional characters quite as well-rounded as Norma Joyce: as one back-cover reviewer puts it, she "is life itself".
A stunning read, then, and constantly surprising. Buy it.
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on 3 October 2004
If, like me, you're a big fan of Canadian literature, you'll love Elizabeth Hay. If you place Margaret Attwood on the highest plinth, with Robertson Davies and Alice Monroe fighting for second place, then try Hay. She's sparce and emotional. She describes the landscape of Ontario and Saskatchewan with brevity and soul.
The characters are well drawn and bitter-sweet. Like Monroe, the language flows in an effortless, timeless manner. It's poetic language.
In this book, like life, don't expect a happy ending. But enjoy the journey. Highly recommended
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HALL OF FAMEon 16 October 2003
It's an interesting experience to encounter a book in which none of the major figures is likeable. Yet that very circumstance is a tribute to Elizabeth Hay's eloquent portrayal of two sisters in drought-ridden central Canada. Her people are deep and complex, intensely drawn and immensely real. Even the peripheral characters ring true, without the blemish of contrivance. Hay's descriptive ability in both urban and rural settings gives this book further enhancement. She vividly depicts the impact of environment on her chief protagonist, providing a framework for change of mood throughout the narrative. Hay, too, is clearly a student of weather. And a keen observer of people.
Norma Joyce Hardy initiates a life-long adoration of Maurice Dove with a touch on his cheek. That she's but a child is of little moment. That she's overshadowed by her sister's beauty becomes even less so. Even at nine years of age, she's driven by determination to find the means to supplant Lucinda. Resentful of her sister's looks, industry, and favoured place with their father, she becomes secretive, duplicitous, devious. Lucinda, having replaced their dead mother, is vulnerable, and Norma Joyce takes advantage of that exposure. Maurice becomes the tool for expressing Norma's envy, but she becomes the victim of her own machinations. Maurice, unsurprisingly, is following his own agenda, and Norma's place in it is problematic.
In pursuit of Maurice, Norma Joyce's life orbits like an erratic comet. From the most rural to the most urban environments in North America and back again, her loci remain vague. Only Maurice is a fixed point, but that seeming stability actually is the cause of her displacements. She is torn between seeking and avoiding him, particularly when the attainment of her goal leads to the inevitable result. Hay brings the Hardy family out of dry Saskatchewan to "golden" Ontario. Ottawa, however pleasant and green, fails to bring rest, and Norma pursues Maurice to New York City. A greater contrast to Prairie Canada can hardly be imagined, but Hay guides us through Norma's transition flawlessly. New York, however, doesn't resolve her situation with Maurice, which grows ever more complicated. Nor is the relationship of the sisters granted an easy path. Who carries the burden of Lucinda's fate will be the topic of endless debate.
Hay's account is admirable in its prowess in compelling attention to people and places. The factual nature of her characters, their failure to fulfill simple expectations is a credit to her skills. A love story of sorts, this is hardly a "romantic novel." It is a richly rewarding story, worthy of your attention. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 30 September 2014
not really for me, bits of it I found interesting but had to read it for book club.
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on 23 April 2008
It takes a great writer to recreate a world so well that you believe you are reading a true story. The depiction of rural life in cold, dusty, stormy Saskatchewan is beautifully done and I doubt anybody can feel indifferent to the fortunes of those two sisters who have the misfortune of caring for the same young man who doesn't care enough for either of them. A very atmospheric read of the best kind, a haunting book that you will devour and love I am sure!
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