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.

My rating: 4-star-rating

17 responses

  1. Hagar. What a delightfully curmudgeonly name. I’ll read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was trying to figure out if the story of the biblical character by that name sheds any light. (She was Sarah’s concubine and slept with Abraham to give birth to Ishmael.) In the end, I don’t think so!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad you liked The Stone Angel. It is one of my favourites http://www.exurbanis.com/archives/4466

    And I love the cover on the reprint!


    1. I’d never heard of Laurence (shocking, I know, but I don’t think she’s particularly well known outside of Canada), so this was a wonderful surprise.

      Great to read your review. I think you were right to peg pride as Hagar’s lifelong failing and struggle. The last passage you quoted is an excellent one I typed out but didn’t end up including in my review.

      Yes, the Apollo Classics are all beautifully done. This cover is from the painting “Farm” (1933) by Prudence Heward, a Montreal artist (in National Gallery of Canada).


  3. I loved this book. I still feel sorry for poor Hagar – if only she could have gotten over herself! If this is your first Laurence, then you have a few more to look forward to! (As do I!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, this is my first experience with Laurence. I’ll probably request the next one in the Manawaka series, A Jest of God, when it comes out here in March. It will be interesting to see whether she sticks with the same characters/community or branches out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s one I don’t own – it’ll be good to know whether or not to look out for it.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. What else have you read by her?


      1. Nothing! But I own a few. And I saw the movie The Diviners a long time ago, which made me not want to read the book. But I think it’s been long enough now that I probably no longer remember what happens.

        A good friend of mine has read her memoir, Dance On the Earth, and she loved it. In case you’re interested…


    3. I generally love memoirs, so I would definitely like to read hers. I know she spent time in Africa, so that should be especially interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. P.S. It was funny that right after finishing this I started Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. In some ways the setup is very similar: a very old woman slipping back into her past.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! I thought so, too. I might have even mentioned it in my review, or I might have edited it out – I can’t remember. I also read them almost back-to-back!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have an old green Virago of this one waiting tbr. It sounds marvellous so I’m looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] 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 […]


  6. […] Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler, with Rose also somewhat reminiscent of Hagar in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. Casualties by Elizabeth Marro is another readalike, focusing on a bereaved mother and her soldier […]


  7. […] Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Cassandra Darke in Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, Hendrik Groen in his two titular Dutch diaries, and Frederick Lothian in Josephine Wilson’s […]


  8. […] a collection entitled A Stone Diary, and surely the title’s similarity to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) can’t be pure […]


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