- Elizabeth Hay (Author)
A Student of Weather. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
If you enjoyed Elizabeth Hay’s earlier work as I did, then this new novel will both reassure and surprise you. It will reassure because here again is that precision, clarity and sheer beauty of language that make the writing in Crossing the Snow Line or The Only Snow in Havana such a pleasure to read. It will surprise, perhaps, because the story in this novel is so harsh and its main character so unlikeable.
A Student of Weather is Norma Joyce’s story of growing up in the care of a beautiful older sister whom she hates and does all she can to hurt. Norma Joyce spends her life loving a man more ruthless than herself in order to spite her sister, and I am tempted to say that his rejection of her is exactly what she deserves. But finally, this novel is not about this specific unrequited love so much as it is about a woman’s inability to love the sister who loves her and about her inability to express much affection for other people in her life.
While I do not find the plot involving Norma Joyce’s obsession with a self-centred man convincing, I did find her obsession with her sister chillingly so. It is in this plot line that Hay probes levels of myth and human psychology and asks her readers to think carefully about jealousy, rivalry and desire between women. As Norma Joyce sees it, the men in their lives are the spaces they seek to control, the battlefield on which they struggle to win. And Norma Joyce does win. She outlives them all and finds satisfaction in this success.
So what am I to make of this woman and this story? A Student of Weather is many things that I cannot explore in a brief review, but I find Norma Joyce to be a study in something very close to evil in a film by Ingmar Bergman, a world where atonement, forgiveness and transcendence are almost irrelevant. Norma Joyce does not say she is sorry; she does not seem wracked with guilt; she does not acknowledge the role she has played in damaging others and her self. She does not change. At the most she admits to a memory of her dead sister’s tenderness that "has touched a toothache of affection, and the pain stuns her."
Love as pain is not a new theme, but with her artistic capacity to touch that nerve of awareness in her readers, Hay reminds us that life is not simple, that fictions do not end happily, and that the bonds between women are more important, more psychologically complex than we realize. If it is true that an ugly sister will always haunt a beautiful one, tarnishing everything she does with the bitterness of envy, then it is equally true that the beautiful sister will haunt the ugly one, and in that haunting there is hope.
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MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Between Women. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 149 - 150)
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