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The Laments


The Laments

George Hagen's debut novel, THE LAMENTS, begins in the mid-1950s
with two babies switched at birth, thanks to an overzealous doctor
and two mothers --- one overeager and one overpermissive. Julia
Lament's son, a healthy and as-yet-unnamed baby, is given to a
woman named Mary to nurse while Mary's son, born premature, lays in
an incubator, untouchable and therefore unnursable. After
developing a strong attachment to Julia's child, Mary decides to
steal him, leaving Julia and her husband, Howard, with a son who is
not their own, whom they name Will after his will to live.

It's a quirky beginning to a novel that only gets increasingly
quirkier with every chapter. After leaving the hospital, the
makeshift Lament family settles in South Rhodesia, but soon moves
to Bahrain so Howard can follow his dreams of becoming an engineer
and inventor. But Bahrain is too crowded and hot for him, so the
family moves to the small town of Albo, North Rhodesia, where Julia
has twins, Julius and Marcus. As political turmoil heats up
locally, the Laments move again, just weeks before North Rhodesia
becomes Zambia.

Leaving the relative prosperity they enjoyed in Africa, the Laments
settle in a suburb of London, but soon enough, Howard's job hits a
dead end. So the clan moves to New Jersey, where soon enough they
move again. And yet again. Over nearly four hundred pages, this
global picaresque is a bit repetitive and feels frenzied and
forced. In an effort to keep the pace moving quickly, Hagen
withdraws the Laments from these locales (the literary equivalent
of an emergency airlift) just before anything dramatic happens, so
their presence there feels transitory to the Laments as well as to
the reader. For instance, when Howard and Julia return home with
Will, there is very little blame or recrimination between them over
their real son's fate and their new son's presence; in fact, there
is very little emotion other than the restlessness that leads them
to Bahrain.

There Julia enjoys the friendship of a brash American named Trixie
Howitzer and endures the flirtations of a dashing Arab who recalls
Clark Gable, but she and Howard flee for North Rhodesia before
anything interesting can develop. There are a few intriguing
episodes in Albo and England, but nothing substantial. Only in
America do they stay long enough to generate much of a plot. The
point is that these characters are a family without a country,
"perpetual strangers" wherever they go. Unfortunately, Hagen's
jumpy plotting forces the reader into a similarly unsettling and
unsatisfying limbo.

As a result of this narrative transience, THE LAMENTS reads like a
missed opportunity to capture a world in flux --- not just
culturally and politically, but also personally for the Lament
family. Hagen keeps his eye so closely attuned to the fast-paced
and quirky plot that he fails to capture the world around his
characters adequately or vividly. Only Bahrain is evoked in any
specific detail; the events in North Rhodesia could have happened
anywhere, and Hagen tries to pass off shorthand observations about
England --- bad weather, worse plumbing --- as actual descriptions,
such that England comes off not so much as a real place, but as a
sitcom setting.

It's surprising, then, that THE LAMENTS is engaging at all, but
Hagen has an undeniable facility with his characters, especially
Julia and Will, who are by far the most compelling people in the
novel. Both of them suffer severely from the family's nomadic
tendencies: Julia feels particularly rootless with no job and no
point to her days, and Will, in addition to suspecting his adoptive
status, makes friends at school only to be uprooted before he can
truly connect with anyone or see himself as others see him. Julia
and Will Lament are believable and sympathetic enough to get a
reader through this lengthy novel, but they cannot make it resound
the way it should.


Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on December 30, 2010

The Laments
by George Hagen

  • Publication Date: June 15, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400062217
  • ISBN-13: 9781400062218