February 20th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Small Change* by Elizabeth Hay

Another book that I read along with everyone else in Canada a few years back is Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. And just like everyone else, I really enjoyed the novel–the exotic setting of the Canadian North, the real but somehow gentle characters, the fascination and nostalgia of the radio culture.

A few years later, though, I was completely blindsided by Hay’s work in The New Quarterly called The Last Poems. This story had sharply defined characters but a weirdly interior world of rage and psychology and love. I thought it was brilliant writing, far more insightful and memorable than even the novel I so admired.

I think Hay‘s short-story collection, Small Change comes from the same well of stories as The Last Poems–I even recognized some of the characters from the TNQ piece appearing briefly in this book. And these stories have the same brilliant intensity. I was completely immersed in and astounded by the first story in the collection, “The Friend.” In it, a protagonist with a husband and small daughter finds herself taken over by her new friend Maureen, a woman with a small child of her own, a problematic marriage, and a will towards pathos that allows no problems or indeed voices other than her own in the conversation.

*Small Change*’s back-cover bumpf says the collection “illuminates the changing seasons of friendship,” so I was expecting the stories to be linked only by theme–a sort of concept album-style collection, which is not exactly something I’ve seen before. But it turns out that the collection is also linked by protagonist–the same  not-quite-young woman appears in most of  the stories–though a few are in third or even second person, they are all about her. The second piece in the collection is actually still about her relationship with Maureen, sort of, and this former friend proves a touchstone throughout the book, though she is not actually onstage again.

There’s an incredible sense of insight into the worst kinds of human behaviours. “Hand Games” is the story of very little girls and their afterschool friendship that goes awry in a way that most of us will recognize, but I’ve never heard described so well–the power dynamic of refusing to play, of changing the game, of liking and then not liking. It’s persuasive and true and banal and utterly sad–a riveting story.

The problem with the book–or the problem with me that caused me to have a problem with the book–occurred to me about halfway through. In *Small Change,* all the friendships go awry, and they do so in a dramatic sad slide of envy and jealousy, boredom and insecurity, and quite often a desire to “win” encounters not so far removed from the story about the six-year-olds. I found the stories incredibly insightful about certain moments of intense emotions, but not awfully insightful about the rate of incidence of such moments in everyday life–for every friendship I’ve had that ended badly, I have lots that are still going strong, and a few that just kinda quietly drifted off. I don’t know any adults that bring a consistent level of drama to friendships–I really don’t.

When I found the statement, late in the book, “how difficult it is to have companionship without being encroached upon,” I felt like I had found the unifying philosophy of the book, and I didn’t agree with it. I find it easy and lovely to have friends, and I find most of them give more than they take. As a character study–a study of a woman struggling with her inability to keep friends over the long term–the book is perhaps perfectly realistic but deeply sad and finally hard for me to relate to. Each individual story was incredibly vivid, emotionally accessible and relatable, but taken in sum, the stories seem to come to the conclusion that  (I’m paraphrasing from the book itself) all friendships have an expiration date, like milk, and since friendships must end and it’s impossible to end them gently–chaos ensues.

I was so depressed by this book that I thought perhaps I read it too fast–sometimes when I do that, it’s like I’m living inside the text, becoming the characters. But my notes say it took me more than 10 days. Maybe the power of Hay’s writing is that it had me living inside it while reading only a few pages a day. I honestly don’t know what to say about this book–I think the artistic achievement of it is immense, but by the last page I was so miserable I can’t honestly say I liked it.

This is my second book for the 2012 To Be Read challenge.

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