Monday, February 27, 2012

Books: A Jest of God

Continuing with my journey through the literature by and about Margaret Laurence, I read her second Manawaka novel, A Jest of God.

In this novel, about a thirty-something 'spinster' named Rachel Cameron, a desperately lonely school teacher. Like her previous protagonist, Hagar Shipley, Rachel is trapped in a web partly of her own doing, party of circumstance. Living with a mother whose honey-covered barbs are almost painful to read, she is caught by the conventions and restrictions of obligation and societal norms. She is also self-conscious and critical to the point of being paralyzed into an uneasy stasis.

The narrative is intimately told from Rachel's perspective and while Laurence herself said it was slow to get moving, she felt she had to allow Rachel her own time and way to tell her story. Rachel's gradual transformation, from solitude to companionship, from constraint to cautious freedom, is a gradual process - and one that she does not earn without heartache and pain.

The ending of the book has one of the most beautiful and timeless passages of freedom I know.

"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 am going... I will be different. I will remain the same. ...  I will ask myself if I am going mad, but if I do, I won't know it."

As I've mentioend before, not only am I enjoying re-reading Laurence's novels, I am also reading her memoir, letters and a bio about her. Although she does not discuss much of a book while she is writing it, she admits to her fears and doubts about its viability. She struggled for months to find a way in to the novel - in fact she wanted to write about two sisters and for a long time worked on Stacey's story (which was to become The Fire Dwellers), but eventually realized that Rachel's story had to be told first.

These discoveries reveal just how closely connected Laurence was to her characters - and how real they were to her. It is this strength of connection and depth of understanding that enables her to write in such a memorable and honest voice.

1 comment:

  1. I wholly enjoyed re-reading that passage: it's just beautiful. When I re-read this one, I was surprised by the amount of the story devoted to their relationship, as what stood out in my memory were the parts where Rachel felt so alone, to the point where I'd pretty much written the fella out altogether by mis-remembering.