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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Laurence’

Ajest of god

My final read of June was my second Margaret Laurence novel of the month – A Jest of God, which is the second novel in her famous Manawaka sequence of novels. The novel takes place during a couple of months of one summer, exploring loneliness, desire and disappointment.

“I may become, in time, slightly more eccentric all the time. I may begin to wear outlandish hats, feathered and sequinned and rosetted, and dangling necklaces made from coy and tiny seashells which I’ve gathered myself along the beach and painted coral-pink with nail polish. And all the kids will laugh, and I’ll laugh, too, in time. I will be light and straight as any feather. The wind will bear me, and I will drift and settle, and drift and settle. Anything may happen, where I’m going.”

Rachel Cameron is a shy, thirty-four-year-old school teacher, leading a life of stifling conventionality in the small Canadian town she grew up in. Years before she had made a brief escape to attend college, but returned to live with and care for her mother following her father’s death. They live in the flat above the funeral directors that her father had once owned. Mrs Cameron (like Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel) is a wonderfully drawn character, a coyly manipulative terror she is overbearing and demanding. Rachel’s older sister Stacey escaped – married now, living in the city with four children, she very rarely visits.

Each year, Rachel silently directs her love toward one of the pupils in her class of seven-year olds (as the novel opens it is young James) although she goes to very great lengths to make sure no one guesses. Rachel is in part surprised to find herself teaching in the school where she was once a child – there is a definite feeling that she has not had the opportunity to move her life forward, stuck still in the landscape of her childhood.

“I remember myself skipping rope to that song when I was about the age of the little girls out there now. Twenty-seven years ago, which seems impossible, and myself seven, but the same brown brick building, only a new wing added and the place smartened up. It would certainly have surprised me then to know I’d end up here…”

Rachel’s one friend in the town, is Calla; a kind hearted fellow teacher who dresses oddly, calls Rachel child, and is a member of the Tabernacle church where worshippers have recently begun speaking in tongues. Calla exacts a promise from Rachel to attend a future meeting with her, and Rachel is torn between the knowledge of how excruciating she will find it – and not wanting to hurt Calla’s feelings. The evening, when it finally happens is even worse than Rachel had anticipated, affecting her powerfully and emotionally in a way she finds acutely embarrassing.

Rachel has a powerful inner life – she is sharp, intelligent and an astute observer of those around her, the children, the school principle, Calla and her mother.

“Nothing is clear now. Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified – a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on a man’s hands – or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a world. The darkening sky is hugely blue, gashed with rose, blood, flame from the volcano or wound or flower of the lowering sun. The wavering green, the sea of grass, piercingly bright. Black tree trunks, contorted, arching over the river.”

There are moments when she isn’t as kind as he would like to be, dimly aware of being unkind toward Calla’s friendliness, she then feels guilty for her sharpness. However, Rachel is also vulnerable, caught still in the life of her childhood, ministering to her mother and living a life of quiet, conventionality. Deep down, Rachel harbours more than a little resentment for the life she is leading, making sandwiches and serving coffee at her mother’s bridge parties, accompanying her mother to church – where she would in fact rather not go at all. Inside, Rachel isn’t quite the quiet, dutiful small town spinster school teacher that she appears.

As Rachel says goodbye to her class of children for the summer holidays, another former child of the town returns. Nick Kazlik; the son of the town’s Ukrainian milkman, returns for the summer. Nick is a high school teacher in the city, to where he will soon return. The two embark upon a passionate relationship. Nick’s attitude to their relationship is much more casual than Rachel’s. Rachel is more like a gauche young school girl than a woman in her thirties – unpractised in the ways of love and sex. Nick visits the scenes of his childhood and adolescence with Rachel, haunted a little by the memory of his twin brother who died several years earlier. As Rachel grows in sexual confidence, she becomes more reliant on Nick, worrying when he doesn’t ring for several days, even imaging a future for the two of them.

A Jest of God is beautifully written, a sympathetic, tender novel which sees Rachel come to a new understanding about herself, and her standing with her difficult mother. A thoroughly beautiful novel, Margaret Laurence is someone I shall be reading much more of.

I have The Diviners tbr – which I believe is the fourth or fifth novel in the Manawaka sequence – though I assume it doesn’t matter in which order they are read.

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stoneangel

The librarything Virago group have chosen to read Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence during June, giving me the excuse I needed to try a writer of whom I had heard rather good things.

The Stone Angel is the first books in Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka novels – though my understanding is that place is the only real link, and that each novel stands alone. I also have A Jest of God the second Manawaka novel sitting on my tbr – and I am now really looking forward to it. Oh I do love discovering a new author.

In this beautifully written novel, Margaret Laurence explores the life of one woman, Hagar Shipley, moving back and forth through different periods of her life. As the novel opens we get a snapshot of Hagar’s childhood, as aged ninety Hagar begins to reflect on her past.

“Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young.”

Living with her son Marvin and his wife Doris, Hagar is sick, irascible and worried she is about to be shipped off to a care home. Hargar’s voice is wonderfully strong, she has lived a long life, there is a sense that her life has not been happy. She is sharp tongued, a difficult woman, devoid of warmth – she doesn’t give her son or daughter-in-law any credit.

“I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it.”

Born in the small rural community of Manawaka, during another century, Hagar was the daughter of a successful Scottish store-owner. The apple they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree – and her father Jason Currie was a difficult man, an unforgiving, harsh disciplinarian. There are two brothers, and Aunt Doll – the widow hired to help look after Jason’s motherless children. The surrounding community – like communities everywhere I suppose had its snobberies and pretensions, one of Hagar’s school fellows despised because of the sins of her mother. Hagar marries a man her father least wants her too – Bram Shipley is older, a widower with grown up daughters. Hagar’s father is furious, incapable of forgiving, he never sees Hagar again, never meeting her sons Marvin and John.

Initially Hagar had felt very attracted to Bram, yet she barely knew him, and very soon that attraction gives way to a very unhappy marriage. Hagar is embarrassed by her husband; his country ways shame her.

“And yet – here’s the joker in the pack – we’d each married for those qualities we later found we couldn’t bear, he for my manners and speech, I for his flaunting of them.”

Bram was a bit of a half-hearted farmer – and money is tight. Hagar was reduced to selling eggs to other households – which she found fairly humiliating. Eventually, Hagar leaves Bram, taking her younger more favoured son John with her.

There are so many things the reader can take from this novel – but the thing that was most affecting for me was the fear and isolation that great age brings with it. Hagar has not been a particularly warm person, she’s failed to recognise the gratitude she owes her eldest son, whom she never appreciated or understood. After having made a reckless bid for freedom, which sees Hagar sleeping in an abandoned building and swapping confidences with another wanderer, Hagar finds herself in hospital. Here she battles her loss of independence, frailty and the nightly noises of the hospital around her.

“The room at night is deep and dark, like a coal-scuttle, and I’m lying like a lump at the bottom of it. I’ve been wakened by the girl’s voice, and now I can’t get back to sleep again. How I hate the sound of a person crying. She moans, snuffles wetly, moans again. She won’t stop. She’ll go on all night like this, more than likely. It’s insufferable.”

Hagar Shipley isn’t a particularly likeable character – but Margaret Laurence portrays her in such a way that she is – in a way – a kind of everywoman. Flawed, grumpy and frightened, she has behaved badly (and I think she knows that deep down) but her anxiety comes from a real place – who of us doesn’t fear a loss of independence, having others make decisions for us? Margaret Laurence allows Hagar to be sympathetic – when actually she is frequently rather monstrous – but I liked her – and I bet other readers do too.

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