This novel, a study of a 70-year marriage, is about ordinary people but is extraordinary in quality.
Harry Miles, a sensitive man with a love of poetry, meets Evelyn Hill and falls in love immediately. He describes her personality when he first meets her: “She had an appetite for the better things, quick judgement, a very strong will, a dislike of doubt or ambiguity, and a way of making her words count. Her opinions and feelings stormed through her. She warmed to appreciation.” The two marry during the early years of World War II, and because Harry enlists and is sent to North Africa, their first years are “islands of cohabitation in an ocean of separation.” After the war, they begin what Harry calls “a new marriage: real now, an everyday, actual thing instead of a frenzied week trying to make up for lost time and then a slew of letters.”
After the war, Harry has clear hopes for his life. He does not want to be a “slug of a man, pale and oblivious, bored, existing, yes, but not much more than that”; instead, “Having survived the war, I hope not to be ground down by the peace. I want to stay alert. To love passionately. To go beyond myself. Even, still, to write.” However, Harry loves Evelyn and wants to give her everything she wants: “He is her agent. She articulates an aim, he finds the way.” He takes a job in municipal construction and works hard so they eventually have a beautiful home with room for a large garden. They raise three children who have opportunities denied their parents. They should be happy but that is not the case, especially as they age and contend with physical infirmities.
Harry observes that “Marriages were not equal or fair” and it is obvious from the beginning that his marriage to Evelyn will not be either. Harry loves Evelyn beyond measure and when not with her tries to write about his feelings: “But despite or because of the intensity of his feelings, it was impossible. He could barely read. It was as if he had lost all access to language.” Evelyn, on the other hand, misses “his attention to her comfort and well-being, the feeling of her own value, a deep acknowledgement of that. On her part, there was no suffering, no feverishness, no lovesickness.” Harry wants his wife to be happy and early on decides that he will devote himself to giving her what she wants. When they move into a new home with a garden he tells her, “’We’d only known each other about half an hour . . . but I knew then that you must have your own house with a garden. . . . I knew I must get it for you.’” Her response is, “’I just wish the garden would grow faster.’”
There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness because of how Harry’s love is not returned in kind and his sacrifices are unappreciated. He takes a job he does not enjoy because it provides financial security and enables him to give Evelyn what she wants and his children what they need. Unfortunately, he loses himself in the process: “He would never complete a poem to his satisfaction, much less send one to a little magazine, however much he had once imagined he might do such a thing … And he was no longer the young man coming home to his wife after years of war, vowing not to be ground down by routine, to stay open to the possibility of an ecstatic life.” His is a diminished, disappointed life devoted to fitting “around someone driven and intransigent.”
Harry believes the words of a favourite sonnet (Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks / But bears it out even to the edge of doom) and the sentiment is true in his case: “He had loved her all his adult life, long after the gloss of their youth and its illusions had been worn away and left them with the essentials of who they were, along with a collection of sometimes contradictory memories … He had never denied her anything, material or emotional, that he could provide.” Evelyn’s decisions in their waning years suggests that her feelings have changed; in fact, even during the war years, when Harry is “low and worn out” and writes about his “dark thoughts,” she is not understanding: “this Harry was not exactly like the one she remembered. This man was less practical, less positive, and less affectionate.” Their daughters tell Harry that “he was too accommodating with Evelyn” but “he didn’t see it just as giving in. It was doing what he could to make things work. He could bend, she could not.” He also fears that if he had stood up to her, “he would have lost her, and that was unthinkable.” Evelyn, however, interprets his constant accommodations as a sign of weakness and she dislikes “compromise, weakness, vagueness.”
Evelyn is not easy to like. She is such a self-centred and domineering person who is never satisfied. At the beginning Harry loves Evelyn’s strong-mindedness: “one of the things he loved about Evelyn was her fierce pride, her willingness to argue even when the facts were against her, to interrupt, to refuse, to insist.” Later, when he is especially frustrated with his job and speaks without thinking, these traits are turned against him and he realizes “How very sensitive Evelyn is to … any criticism or lack of respect, whether real or perceived. How, thinking herself slighted, she will put everything she has into self-defence. How she can be vicious.” As she ages, “She had become more intensely herself … she understood duty and believed in it, yet in practice found it intolerable … When she wanted something, it drove her. She experienced her own feelings with great intensity, but often failed to accept those of others, especially if they differed from hers.”
Despite this negative portrayal, it is possible to have some sympathy for Evelyn. She enjoyed her work at a law firm but was dismissed once she married. She is not prepared for her role as a wife; she has to learn how to cook and thinks of the house as something she must put “under control,” so much so that she detests Harry’s collection of books because of “the fussy, old-fashioned effect it gave a room, especially since his book jackets did not match.” She struggles with motherhood; one of her daughters says, “’She’s just not a natural carer.’” When she speaks to her doctor about some concerns, he is rather dismissive. Then there’s a late pregnancy which she didn’t want. And there is no doubt that her father’s alcoholism had a long-lasting effect on her life; certainly, his behaviour and her mother’s reactions help account for Evelyn’s need to be in control.
This is a novel of character which is breathtakingly realistic. I understand why it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Page’s other novels have also been nominated for prestigious awards, so I will be checking them out.
About the author: Doreen Yakabuski, a Barry’s Bay native, credits the Barry’s Bay Public Library and the Madonna House Lending Library for cultivating her love of reading. After a career as an English teacher/teacher-librarian in Timmins, she and her husband, Jack Vanderburg, settled near Cornwall. Now, Doreen reviews books on her blog: https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/.