A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence
A Jest of God (1966) is the second in Margaret Laurence’s five-novel Manawaka sequence; it followed The Stone Angel (1964), which I reviewed here back in December. Recently reissued as part of the Apollo Classics imprint from Head of Zeus Books, these two books have been a wonderful opportunity for me to further my knowledge of Canadian literature.
Although Rachel Cameron, the narrator of A Jest of God, is a 34-year-old second-grade teacher who still lives with her mother, she has attributes in common with 90-year-old Hagar Shipley, the unforgettable central character of The Stone Angel. Both have a history of sexual hang-ups – Rachel’s in the form of erotic dreams – and experience temporary losses of self-control. The most striking example is when Rachel reluctantly accepts her fellow teacher Calla’s invitation to her Pentecostal church and, though she is mortified at hearing others speaking in tongues, involuntarily enters in herself with hysterical crying.
I loved this sequence. The Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn provides such a contrast to Rachel’s mother’s staid church tradition, and it’s a perfect introduction to Rachel’s patterns of pride and embarrassment (another link to Hagar). Although Rachel frequently issues stern orders to herself – “Now, then. Enough of this. The main thing is to be sensible, to stop thinking and to go to sleep” – she can’t seem to stop worrying and second-guessing. This applies to her career as well as to her personal relationships. With her principal’s support, she takes surprisingly stern action against her favorite pupil when he starts playing truant.
It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving too much away. Do I emulate the vagueness of the back cover blurb and simply explain that Rachel unexpectedly “falls in love for the first time, and embarks upon an affair that will change her life in unforeseen ways”? I’d prefer to go into a bit more depth, so if you want to avoid learning what happens I suggest skipping over my next few paragraphs.
To start with it seems Rachel’s best romantic prospect is Calla, who’s certainly interested. But about a third of the way into the novel, as the boredom of the long summer vacation is setting in, Nick Kazlik returns to town. He was the milkman’s son and Rachel’s childhood acquaintance, and is now a high school teacher in another town. They go out to a movie and share a kiss, and from there their relationship progresses rapidly. Rachel loses her virginity to him out in a field, and the more sex they have the more she’s seized with a belated terror of pregnancy. No doubt her anxiety about motherhood is colored by her passive-aggressive relationship with her own mother, whose dodgy heart leaves her utterly dependent on Rachel.
The novel reminded me most of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone and Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner. Like the protagonists of those novels, Rachel’s options seem stark: acquiring a secret abortion, or changing her life irrevocably by having a child out of wedlock. As the title phrase suggests, Rachel feels God is laughing at her presumptuousness: first for believing she might be loved in proportion to her own passion, and then for thinking she could become a mother. I wasn’t fond of the way the book backtracked on this main source of tension at the end. A retreat from calamity might seem fitting given Rachel’s usual overthinking, but the resolution felt to me like too much of a deus ex machina reprieve.
Ultimately, I found Nick and Rachel’s affair the least interesting element of this novel. Compared with the friendship with Calla, the startling religious experience, the interactions with pupils and the school principal, the troubled mother–daughter relationship, and an odd late-night encounter with the new owner of her late father’s funeral parlor, what’s a bit of sex? We’re meant to rejoice at Rachel’s chance at romance, I think, but also to recognize it as a fleeting but necessary spur to an altered life.
Two aspects of this reprint edition deserve a mention. There’s a terrific afterword from Margaret Atwood recalling meeting Laurence, her literary idol, at the Governor General’s Awards ceremony in 1967 (Atwood won for poetry and Laurence won for fiction with this novel). Apollo Classics have also chosen an excellent cover image: a 1960 photograph by Rosemary Gilliat Eaton entitled Woman preparing paint for an art class, Frobisher Bay.Once again, I enjoyed Laurence’s turns of phrase, especially when describing people: Calla is a “wind-dishevelled owl,” while the six-foot-tall Rachel sees herself in the mirror as “this giraffe woman, this lank scamperer.” But the overall story for me was significantly less memorable than The Stone Angel. It sounds like the third book of the Manawaka series will center on Rachel’s older sister Stacey, who lives near Vancouver with her husband and four children. Whether I’ll ever read this and the final two I couldn’t say, but I’m glad to have had a chance to read a couple of fine examples of Laurence’s work. (And I’m keen to read her memoir, Dance on the Earth, which draws on the five years she and her husband lived in Africa.)
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus/Apollo Classics for the free copy for review.
Reading Goals for 2017
I’ve set just a few modest goals for the coming year’s reading:
- As always, I’d like to focus on reading more of the books I actually own. I went around and did an inventory of unread books in the house and came up with 221. That could easily fill two-thirds or more of next year, yet I know I’m unlikely to cut down on my library borrowing or NetGalley and Edelweiss requests. I think the strategy will be to always have two of my own books on the go at all times, one fiction and one nonfiction, no matter how many other public library or Kindle books I’m reading.
- Some of the books I most want to tackle have 500+ pages. I wonder if I have enough really long books to sustain a Doorstopper of the Month feature? To get a head start on this goal, this past week I started City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Also on the shelf are A Suitable Boy, This Thing of Darkness, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Until I Find You, and a few chunky biographies; I’m also sure to get some long books from the library and NetGalley.
I read very few classics in 2016, just a couple short books by Jerome K. Jerome, a Stefan Zweig novella, Tender Is the Night, and two rediscovered 1930s works from the Apollo Classics series. So that’s something to rectify in 2017. Three classics from the list of “Books to Read in Your 30s” in The Novel Cure are calling to me, and it’s also high time I read some more Dickens (maybe I’ll finally return to Dombey and Son?), Trollope (at least The Warden, if not more of the Barsetshire series), Brontë (Anne, in this case) and Woolf (The Voyage Out). Maybe I’ll also start a Classic of the Month feature?
Regarding my career…
I’d like to replace some of my individual book reviewing with longer articles. For instance, this past year Foreword magazine invited me to write three articles surveying new and upcoming books in various genres: young adult, climate change and middle grade. It’s more rewarding (and remunerative) to prioritize full-length articles.
Regarding the blog…
I’d love to get involved in more blog tours and collaborative challenges. I also hope to continue maintaining a balance between straightforward reviews/lists and different stuff, whether that’s travel reports or more introspective pieces. My dream is still to judge a literary prize, even if that’s just as part of a shadow panel.
What are some of your goals for 2017 – reading-related or otherwise?
Tomorrow: Some final statistics on my reading for the year.
2016 Runners-Up and Other Superlatives
Let’s hear it for the ladies! In 2016 women writers accounted for 9 out of my 15 top fiction picks, 12 out of my 15 nonfiction selections, and 8 of the 10 runners-up below. That’s 73%. The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any full reviews linked in. Many of these have already appeared on the blog in some form over the course of the year.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. This is a rich and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions; it’s a great first novel and I will follow Greenidge’s career with interest.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. I have always felt that O’Farrell expertly straddles the (perhaps imaginary) line between literary and popular fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: This deep study of blended family dynamics starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny; we see the aftermath of that party in the lives of six step-siblings in the decades to come. This is a sophisticated and atmospheric novel I would not hesitate to recommend to literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Jessie Burton, Tracy Chevalier and all others who try to write historical fiction about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, eat your hearts out. Such a beautiful epoch-spanning novel about art and regret.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in a strong debut that offers the hope of redemption. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors: By using present-tense narration, Connors makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday: a blow-by-blow of the sex acts forced on her at knife-point over the nearly one-hour duration of her rape; the police reports and trials; and the effects it all had on her marriage and family. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge: Younge built this book by choosing a 24-hour period (November 22 to 23, 2013) and delving into all 10 gun deaths of young Americans on record for that time: seven black, two Latino, and one white; aged nine to 18; about half at least vaguely gang-related, while in two – perhaps the most crushing cases – there was an accident while playing around with a gun. I dare anyone to read this and then try to defend gun ‘rights’ in the face of such senseless, everyday loss.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Apollo Classics reprints (I reviewed three of them this year); Diana Abu-Jaber, Linda Grant and Kristopher Jansma.
Most Pleasant Year-Long Reading Experience: The seasonal anthologies issued by the UK Wildlife Trusts and edited by Melissa Harrison (I reviewed three of them this year).
Most Improved: I heartily disliked Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood. But her second, The Essex Serpent, is exquisite.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Stephanie Danler, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Francis Spufford, Andria Williams and Sunil Yapa.
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here’s hoping 2017 doesn’t bring any letdowns from beloved authors.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Paulina & Fran (2015) by Rachel B. Glaser. My only one-star review of the year. ’Nuff said?
The 2016 Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to: (At least the 10 I’m most regretful about)
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Museum of You by Carys Bray
- The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell*
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
- The Inseparables by Stuart Nadler
- Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst*
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney*
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead*
*Haven’t been able to find anywhere yet; the rest are on my Kindle.
Which of these should I get reading on the double?
Coming tomorrow: Some reading goals for 2017.
A CanLit Classic: The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
Hagar Shipley has earned the right to be curmudgeonly. Now 90 years old, she has already lived with her son Marvin and his wife Doris for 17 years when they spring a surprise on her: they want to sell the house and move somewhere smaller, and they mean to send her to Silver Threads nursing home. What with a recent fall, gallbladder issues and pesky constipation, the old woman’s health is getting to be more than Doris can handle at home. But don’t expect Hagar to give in without a fight.
This is one of those novels where the first-person voice draws you in immediately. “I am rampant with memory,” Hagar says, and as the book proceeds she keeps lapsing back, seemingly involuntarily, into her past. While in a doctor’s waiting room or in the derelict house by the coast where she runs away to escape the threat of the nursing home, she loses the drift of the present and in her growing confusion relives episodes from earlier life.
Many of these are melancholy: her mother’s early death and her difficult relationship with her father, an arrogant, self-made shopkeeper (“Both of us were blunt as bludgeons. We hadn’t a scrap of subtlety between us”); her volatile marriage to Bram, a common fellow considered unworthy of her (“Twenty-four years, in all, were scoured away like sand-banks under the spate of our wrangle and bicker”); and the untimely deaths of both a brother and a son.
The stone angel of the title is the monument on Hagar’s mother’s grave, but it is also an almost oxymoronic description for our protagonist herself. “The night my son died I was transformed to stone and never wept at all,” she remembers. Hagar is harsh-tongued and bitter, always looking for someone or something to blame. Yet she recognizes these tendencies in herself and sometimes overcomes her stubbornness enough to backtrack and apologize. What wisdom she has is hard won through suffering, but she’s still standing. “She’s a holy terror,” son Marvin describes her later in the novel: another paradox.
Originally from 1964, The Stone Angel was reprinted in the UK in September as part of the Apollo Classics series. It’s the first in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence of five novels, set in a fictional town based on her hometown in Manitoba, Canada. It could be argued that this novel paved the way for any number of recent books narrated by or about the elderly and telling of their surprise late-life adventures: everything from Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared to Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. I was also reminded of Jane Smiley’s Midwest novels, and wondered if Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries was possibly intended as an homage.
I loved spending time in Hagar’s company, whether she’s marveling at how age has crept up on her—
I feel that if I were to walk carefully up to my room, approach the mirror softly, take it by surprise, I would see there again that Hagar with the shining hair, the dark-maned colt off to the training ring
trying to picture life going on without her—
Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no one like me in this world.
or simply describing a spring day—
The poplar bluffs had budded with sticky leaves, and the frogs had come back to the sloughs and sang like choruses of angels with sore throats, and the marsh marigolds were opening like shavings of sun on the brown river where the tadpoles danced and the blood-suckers lay slimy and low, waiting for the boys’ feet.
It was a delight to experience this classic of Canadian literature.
(The Apollo imprint will be publishing the second Manawaka book, A Jest of God, in March.)
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus/Apollo for the free copy for review.
Now in November by Josephine Johnson
I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.
The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:
‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.
Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.
Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:
if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.
Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.
As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”
Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.