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.