I sought this out because Susan Hill hails it as a forgotten classic and it’s included on a list of books to read in your thirties in The Novel Cure.* It’s a gentle and rather melancholy little 1924 novel about Mary, the plain, unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in the undistinguished East Anglian village of Dedmayne. “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” That is, until she unexpectedly falls in love. We follow Mary for the next four years and see how even a seemingly small life can have an impact.
I expect Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin chose this as a book for one’s thirties because it’s about a late bloomer who hasn’t acquired the expected spouse and children and harbors secret professional ambitions. The struggle to find common ground with an ageing parent is a strong theme, as is the danger of an unequal marriage. Best not to say too much more about the plot itself, but I’d recommend this to readers of Elizabeth Taylor. I was also reminded strongly at points of A Jest of Godby Margaret Laurence and Tender Is the Nightby F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a short and surprising classic, one well worth rediscovering.
Some favorite lines:
“she had written almost as a silkworm weaves a cocoon, with no thought of admiration.”
“after three years in one place, suburban people, whatever their layer in society, become restless and want to move on.”
“She had found self-pity a quagmire in which it was difficult not to be submerged.”
Note: Flora Macdonald Mayor (1872–1932) published four novels and a short story collection. Her life story is vaguely similar to Mary Jocelyn’s in that she was the daughter of a Cambridge clergyman.
*I’ve now read six of the 10 titles on their list. The remaining four, which I’ll probably try to read by the end of next year, are London Fields by Martin Amis, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope. I own the Sinclair in paperback, the Jaffe is on shelf at my local public library, and I can get the Amis and Trollope from the university library any time.
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.
In April I’ll be busy with the last three books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I’m nearing halfway in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, have just started Siddhartha Mukherjee’s dauntingly dense The Gene, and am still awaiting my library hold on David France’s How to Survive a Plague. With the shadow panel’s decision due by the 23rd, it’s going to be something of a struggle! If push comes to shove, I’ll have to leave Dickens aside for next month and call Mukherjee and/or France my doorstopper for April.
As to other planned posts for the month…
I read my second Margaret Laurence novel a little while back and just need to find time to write it up.
I’m taking part in a nonfiction blog tour for a bereavement memoir on the 11th.
I’m working on four review books, including two offered directly by the authors.
I’ll try to round up a few recent or upcoming theology titles for an Easter post.
If I get a chance, I’ll preview two or more recommended May releases.
Luckily, it’s a quieter month for me in terms of work deadlines. I’ve been working like a fiend to get ready for our short break to Hay-on-Wye, leaving Monday and returning Thursday evening. Tomorrow I’ll be submitting four completed reviews and scheduling a Wellcome Prize post for while we’re away, and then I’ll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief and allow myself some time off – always a difficult thing for freelancers to manage.
This will be our sixth trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales. Our other visits clustered between 2004 and 2011; I can hardly believe it’s nearly six years since we’ve been back to one of our favorite places! Yet it’s a bittersweet return. On four of our previous trips, we stayed in the same B&B, a gorgeous eighteenth-century house with extensive gardens. It’s where we got engaged in 2006. It also served the finest breakfast known to man: organic Full English PLUS homemade cereals and jam to go with warm croissants; local single-variety apple juice PLUS all-you-can-drink tea. Around 2013 we toyed with the idea of going back, but didn’t make a serious enquiry until 2014. Alas, they’d closed temporarily while the hostess underwent breast cancer treatment. We wished them well, hoping we’d get a message when they reopened for business. Instead, we found her obituary in the Guardian last year.
So, although Hay is still our special place, we’re sad the experience won’t be quite the same. We also noticed that more shops have closed since last we visited, but there are still about 12, a lot for a town of its size. Some of these are top-class, like Booth’s, the Cinema Bookshop and Addyman’s. There will certainly be no dearth of tempting shopping opportunities. I’m not going with much of a plan in mind. Our general strategy is to start with the cheapest shops/bargain basements and then move on to more expensive and specialist ones.
Hay is better for browsing than for concerted searching for particular titles – for that you’re better off going online (many of the shops do Internet sales). It’s also not a place to go for cheap paperbacks – for that you’re better off at your local charity shop. So although I’m taking an updated list of books that are priorities to find, I don’t expect to make much of a dent in it. I’ll just wander and see what catches my eye. We’ll also visit Llanthony Priory and Clyro Church, go for a good country walk, and have lunch with a friend in the Brecon area.
Taking books to Hay is rather like taking coal to Newcastle, but it must be done. I’ve picked four topical reads to sample while I’m there: a selection from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary – he was the curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872; Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 debut novel On the Black Hill, set on the England–Wales border; the obscure classic TheRebecca Rioter, about the Rebecca Riots against tolls in rural Wales in 1839–43; and a Kindle copy of TheAirbnb Story, since we’re renting an Airbnb property this time.
But that’s not all. I need to make progress in at least some of the books I currently have on the go, too, so I will be loading up a book-themed tote bag with the following:
Now, the last thing I needed just before a trip to Hay was an influx of secondhand books, but I couldn’t help myself. This afternoon a local green initiative ran a swap shop where you bring things you don’t want anymore and go home with things you do want. I donated a couple of household items and a few books … but came away with 13 books. Good travel and literature finds. I’m particularly pleased with Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a Dave Eggers novel I’ve not read. It’s fun to think of the journeys these books have been on: John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel (which I have already read, but would like to have around for reference) is an ex-library book all the way from Westborough, Massachusetts! I left my details so I can get involved with future local greening activities, too.
I know a number of my readers are Hay regulars, or have at least made the trek once. If you have any up-to-date recommendations for us in terms of shopping or eating out in the area, do let me know (by tomorrow night if you can – we’re away from Monday morning).
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 Windowand 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.