[There are plot spoilers here]
I’m not a great epigraph reader, but the epigraph of this book seemed particularly apposite- Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas). Hagar, the focal character of this book is raging all the way, just as she has throughout her long life. The only daughter of a rich merhant, she despised her widowed father’s pride in her achievements and emotional dependence on her, and deliberately married the sort of man she knew he disapproved of. The marriage foundered: she was ashamed of her husband’s uncouthness and refused to ever reveal the pleasure that sex with him brought her. Her eldest son Marvin was invisible to her throughout his life; her favourite son John died in a stupid driving prank. And yet it is the long-ignored Marvin that she shares her home with, along with his dowdy wife Doris, on whom the care burden falls as Hagar becomes more frail, dependent and confused. Doris herself is nearly seventy, and Marvin and Doris plan to place her in a nursing home. Enraged and frightened, Hagar runs away to an old family property in the country where she spends a few cold, thirsty dank nights until found and hospitalized with a diagnosis of cancer and a short time to live.
Laurence has wonderful control of this story. She handles the time shifts deftly as Hagar slips between reminiscence and present awareness- sometimes even within the same paragraph. Although Hagar is the point of consciousness in the book, your sympathies for Marvin and Doris are aroused because Hagar surely is a vicious, acidic, scheming, vindictive, selfish and unfair old woman.
There are biblical allusions throughout the text that I chose not to explore, enjoying it sufficiently without feeling the need to contort it into a Christian frame. In a nice little postmodern touch, as I neared the end of the book I realized that the text turned upside down. “How prescient! How modern for a book written in the 1960s!” I thought, assuming that it was a commentary on Hagar’s own mental confusion. But no- the book was just misbound. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…