The figurative language of Elizabeth Hay

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors from novelist Elizabeth Hay…

As a longtime fan of the Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay, pictured above, I was delighted to learn this summer that she’d written a book back in 2000 that I had yet to read. I immediately purchased a copy for my Kindle and took it away with me when I went on holiday.

The book? A Student of Weather. Set on a Depression-era farm in Saskatchewan, the story focuses on a pair of sisters — Norma Joyce and Lucinda — who live with their widowed father. When both young women fall in love with a student who stays with the family to study weather patterns, an unhealthy family dynamic is set in motion. What moved me, however, wasn’t so much the plot, but instead, Hay’s descriptions of the prairie, the weather, and the family. Her figurative language is superb.

Here are my favourite examples: 

  • Beautiful, saintly Lucinda interrupting and believing she has the right to interrupt because all she sees is a tiny book in the hands of a tiny, out-of-proportion child whose forehead puts Elizabeth the First’s to shame, whose earlobes could double as pillows, whose baggy eyes could sleep an army.
  • They all knew sisters who took turns going to school because they shared the same dress, and bachelor brothers who took turns at church because they shared the same coat. Mending and patching until the garment was heavy with how little of it was left.
  • Into a pan on the stove Lucinda spooned a lump of chicken fat the colour of young lemons.
  • A velvet sootiness, especially underground, where it hovered around the raftered ceilings of the subway and settled into grime as deep as plush.
  • Her father had no patience for Mother H.’s endless talk, for the soft mud of her questions and answers, the unclipped long grass of her drawn-out directionless murmurings.
  • The leaves of the Virginia creeper were livid, neither blue enough for a bruise nor red enough for a burn.
  • Just past Swift Current, low hills rise in the middle distance and moving at their base and at her pace, is a long, dark freight train forming a necklace of beads around the soft-green hills.
  • She has touched a toothache of affection, and the pain stuns her.
  • They form an aisle of silver leaves as luminous as the reflectors on a child’s bike.
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