In the pantheon of CanLit authors, Margaret Laurence occupies a top position of honour for me. I have traveled to her fictional Manawaka time and again, courtesy of The Diviners, so this was a familiar return to the small, quirky Prairie town.
A Jest of God centers around Rachel Cameron, the undertaker’s daughter, now in her thirties and imprisoned back in the town taking care of her ailing, manipulative mother. She is a schoolteacher, which resonated with me right away as I could understand and sympathize with many of her complex feelings for her students. It is her own concept of identity and self, however, that the novel chooses as its focus. Initially, she is like a child, unsure of herself, innocent, and firmly under her mother’s thumb. Throughout the story, she reunites with Nick Kazlik, the milkman’s son, whom she knew slightly in her youth. After an awkward and transformational summer affair with Nick, she slowly comes into her own. She realizes her own independence, finds her voice, and accepts that life may not be everything we think it should, but that a person can make their own way despite that.
Margaret Laurence writes with great honesty and sensitivity, along with an amazing capacity for capturing people, time, and place. This book transcends dreary Prairie literature with a larger vision that captures the reader. Nor is it a typical romance novel, for which I have NO tolerance, as the affair itself is simply a tool for propelling Rachel into her adulthood. She explores her feelings around a plethora of issues including family, duty, secrets, children, religion, and sexual orientation. This book was frequently challenged in Canada for its stark portrayal of sexuality and the presence of a homosexual side story (although understandably vague considering the book was written in the 1960s), as well as descriptions of outdated birth control methods (picture an ancient, rotting douche bag – oh my!).
The coming-of-age theme is beautifully and sensitively rendered as Rachel goes from that innocent child-woman to an awkward “adolescent” coming into her own sense of self, and finally emerging as a true adult. Margaret Atwood, in her afterword, described courage and desperation as “the two magnetic poles” of the book. Indeed, Rachel embodies the type of woman that girls of that era were educated to be and it took a large dose of both for her to break the bonds that had been placed on her. I sympathized with her obsessions over what people would say or think of her and cheered her as she realized it didn’t matter anyway. That she could carve her own self-image and anyone who stood in her way be damned.
The reader will not find themselves yearning for a happy ending with Nick, who seemed to be a self-centered, enigmatic character. I am certain that his existence in the novel is simply a literary device to force Rachel’s maturity and consequent escape from her filial bonds of servitude. Nor is the mother a likable character as she blatantly manipulates Rachel to her will. I appreciated the complexity of this relationship, however, as even though Rachel is fully aware that her love is being exploited, she cannot shake the imagined future guilt of causing her mother heartache or aggravating her heart problems.
The most interesting and frustrating relationship in the novel is that of Rachel and Calla as this is where Rachel at her most unlikable. She relentlessly judges Calla in her mind and we must watch as Calla becomes fully aware of Rachel’s disdain for her and her lifestyle. Even so, Calla offers Rachel unending love and support, which by my estimation Rachel exploits mercilessly. Rachel does come to have an appreciation and some semblance of acceptance for Calla, but in my opinion the damage to Calla is already done. I was impressed by the surety and immovable spirit Calla displayed, however, making her a more likable, if lesser, protagonist.
Just as interesting is Laurence’s examination of parents and children in the novel. It is both appalling and fascinating to watch the citizens of Manawaka, in the various books in which they appear, define themselves by what their father did for a living. In The Diviners, Morag came to grips with being the “garbage man’s daughter” and in A Jest of God” Rachel roots her self-identity partially in being “the undertaker’s daughter.” So, too, does Nick become known as “the milkman’s son” and this serves as a jumping off point for developing the characters further. It seems as though they cannot mature further until they have shaken off the invisible bonds of this aspect of their sense of self. Rachel also must examine her parents’ shortfalls and accept that they are human. She does, in a sense, become her own mother and the mother of her mother as the novel concludes. In addition, she must comb through her conflicting views about motherhood, procreation outside the marital bonds, and acceptance that motherhood may or may not happen for her.
Despite my love for this novel, it certainly has a limited potential readership. In order to appreciate the craft and depth of this book, one must have some experience with growing up in a Prairie community similar to Manawaka. Female readers are more likely to accept and learn from Rachel. Also, reading Laurence’s books requires a steady focus and patience as the nuances in the story unfold. If you want action and page-turning fun then this book is not for you. Nevertheless, I am a better reader for taking the time to appreciate Margaret Laurence’s stories in all their Canadian glory and I will continue to read and reread them for years to come.