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The Laments

The Laments

4.7 7
by George Hagen, Clare Higgins (Read by)

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Meet the Laments—the affably dysfunctional globetrotting family at the center of George Hagen's exuberant debut novel.

Howard is an engineer who dreams of irrigating the Sahara and lives by the motto Laments move! His wife Julia is a fiery spirit who must balance her husband's oddly peripatetic nature with unexpected aspirations of her own. And Will is


Meet the Laments—the affably dysfunctional globetrotting family at the center of George Hagen's exuberant debut novel.

Howard is an engineer who dreams of irrigating the Sahara and lives by the motto Laments move! His wife Julia is a fiery spirit who must balance her husband's oddly peripatetic nature with unexpected aspirations of her own. And Will is the waif with a paper-thin heart who is given to Howard and Julia in return for their own child who has been lost in a bizarre maternity ward mishap. As Will makes his way from infancy to manhood in a family that careens from continent to continent, one wonders where the Laments will ever belong.

In Bahrain, Howard takes a job with an oil company and young Will makes his first friend. But in short order he is wrenched off to another land, his mother's complicated friendship with the American siren Trixie Howitzer causing the family to bolt. In Northern Rhodesia, during its last days as a white colony, the twin enfants terribles Marcus and Julius are born, and Will falls for the gardener's daughter, a girl so vain that she admires her image in the lid of a biscuit tin. But soon the family's life is upturned again, thie time by their neighbor Major Buck Quinn, with his suburban tirades against black self-rule. Envisioning a more civilized life on the sceptered isle, the Laments board an ocean liner bound for England. Alas, poor Will is greeted by the tribal ferocity of his schoolmates and a society fixated on the Blitz. No sooner has he succumbed to British pop culture in the guise of mop-top Sally Byrd and her stacks of 45s, than the Laments uproot themselves once again, and it's off to New Jersey, where life deals crisis and opportunity in equal measure.

Undeniably eccentric, the Laments are also universal. Every family moves on in life. Children grow up, things are left behind; there is always something to lament. Through the Lament's restlessness, responses to adversity, and especially their unwieldy love for one another, George Hagen gives us a portrait of every family that is funny, tragic, and improbably true.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Meet the Laments, a white South African family whose motto, "Laments travel," is borne out in this impressive novel of struggle, sacrifice, and the true meaning of kinship.

Hagen's wildly entertaining debut revolves around the aptly named Will Lament, adopted by the parents of a baby killed during a kidnapping attempt by Will's own birth parents. Despite this shaky beginning, Will is accepted into his peripatetic new family and grows up as they move from South Africa to Bahrain to London and ultimately to the U.S., in pursuit of the elusive dreams of their patriarch. Will's initial sense of displacement emerges when he notices a distinct lack of resemblance to the rest of his family. To further complicate the family dynamic, Will's parents swap traditional gender roles when his tenacious mother, sensing that her husband will never settle down and make good, rolls up her sleeves and does so herself, becoming the family breadwinner. Throughout the trials and tribulations faced by the Laments, author Hagen deftly evokes both the societal forces that test brittle familial ties and the internal forces that threaten to tear them apart. In The Laments, Hagen depicts an eccentric clan that is both resilient and oddly triumphant despite hardship and heartache, and creates unforgettable characters, both heroic and universal. (Fall 2004 Selection)

Jonathan Yardley
It's a nice story about familiar and durable matters: family, love, identity, loyalty. George Hagen obviously has a good heart, and he has created people who share that admirable quality.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Mr. Hagen has shaped an affectionate family portrait in which the characters come vividly to life, no matter how adrift they may be. The Lament parents are especially memorable, Julia for her sense of lost opportunity and Howard for his gradual way of losing heart...Each of them sees new opportunity eternally on the horizon in ways that have the potential to make this a story of crushing disappointment. But Mr. Hagen somehow endows it with brightness and finds a universality here, too.—Janet Maslin
Publishers Weekly
Ever in search of greener pastures, idealistic but frustrated engineer Howard Lament drags his long-suffering wife, Julia, and their three sons from South Africa to Rhodesia, Bahrain, England and America. The family's rootlessness weighs most heavily on eldest son Will, secretly adopted after a maternity ward mixup goes horribly awry, who feels the odd man out in the face of his constantly changing surroundings and the preternatural solidarity of his twin brothers. Hagen, a screenwriter and first-time novelist, makes the story a coming-of-age saga and familial drama, often comic in tone but also full of tragedy: car crashes, a kidnapping, death and dismemberment. As the Laments give up their privileged status under apartheid and eventually settle for downward mobility in the crass American suburbs, Hagan makes their wanderings and expatriate identity crises a commentary on the vexed legacy of British colonialism. The narrative sometimes slows to allow the Laments to hash out their liberal politics, and some sketchily drawn characters (Lament's son Julius is memorable largely for his un-self-conscious masturbatory rituals) die when their plot assignments are completed. Hagen pokes fun at Albion's seed with comic clich s-the Rhodesians are racist Colonel Blimps, the English are soccer thugs, the Americans are conformists, religious zealots or strident New Leftists. The Laments themselves, saddled with the melancholy of postimperial decline, are a spirited but slightly sad lot who wish for better lives. This is a funny, touching novel about the meaning of family, with an oddly high body count. Agent, Henry Dunow. (June 22) Forecast: A 10-city author tour and overseas enthusiasm (rights have been sold in 10 countries) should earn this unusual and enjoyable novel a modest following. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This first novel follows the lives of the Laments, a white South African family in the late 20th century. Howard is an engineer who marries the energetic and artistic Julia. In a twist of events, the Laments adopt Will, just delivered by a mother who has abducted their biological infant and is then tragically killed with the abducted child in an automobile accident. A few years later, Will's twin brothers, Marcus and Julius, are born as the Laments begin their nomadic flights from Rhodesia to the Persian Gulf, England, and, finally, the United States. Whenever a social situation becomes uncomfortable, the Laments follow their motto: "Moving is good. Damn the neighbors. On to better things." In each country, they learn that human offenses like prejudice are universal attitudes they cannot escape. At the same time, each family member learns to confront his or her own fears and face the world's injustices. Although the characters could have been developed more fully, Hagen's strong writing offers a significant understanding of contemporary family relationships. Recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/04.] David A. Beron , Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The Lament family has a secret. Will is not the jolly, glowing baby born to Julia and Howard in Rhodesia during the 1950s. He is the weak, transparent preemie abandoned by his distraught mother when she kidnapped the Lament infant from the maternity ward. When the woman and child die in an automobile accident, the attending physician persuades the stunned Laments to pretend the abandoned child is theirs, and take him home. For the Laments, home is more a goal than a place. Soon Will, his younger twin brothers, and his parents begin a series of disastrous moves. Idealistic and impractical engineer Howard longs for a career that will make full use of his inventive genius. Artistic, progressive Julia wants a perfect community. Leaving a prosperous situation in Rhodesia, the family follows Howard as he accepts ultimately unsatisfactory jobs around the world. Will minds the uprooting more than the others do as the family moves from Africa to Bahrain to England to the U.S., and his struggle to make a place for himself is complicated by the family's downward economic spiral. Since much of the focus of the story is on hormone-driven teenage boys, the language and situations are often crude and sexually oriented. Despite a surprising number of bizarre tragedies, the book is full of humor, and the gradual development of the characters leads to a plausible and satisfying conclusion.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The mid-century progress of a fragile but hugely likable family from colonial Africa to suburban New Jersey. South Africans Howard and Julia Lament have the makings of a successful marriage. He's a clever engineer, she a capable artist, and they both understand that it will be necessary to work to be better citizens of the world than Howard's lumpen father or Julia's oft-married mother Rose. Howard is willing to set aside his extravagant professional ambitions to work at boring jobs, and Julia bravely gives up painting so that they can be very good parents. But, when they do start the family, they are dealt a devilish hand. Politely agreeing to their obstetrician's rather loopy proposal in hospital, they lend their beautiful robust baby son to a painfully lactating, loony mother whose premature baby is not ready to nurse. The unstable mum runs off with baby Lament, and both are killed in a car accident, leaving the Laments with the scrawny orphan, whom they adopt and name Will. They are fortunate. Although he of course doesn't look like either parent, Will is quite as smart and imaginative, and, unlike his late biological mother, he sails on an even keel. Not that he doesn't wonder a bit. As the Laments move first to southern Rhodesia and then to England, the family growing with the birth of twins Marcus and Julius, Will always finds himself something of an outsider both in the world and, inexplicably, in the family. The moves have been necessitated by Howard's gentle downward professional spiral. Julia and Will hate leaving every place and find it hard to fit into new surroundings. Howard's final move, when English employment doesn't work out, is to America, where they settle into atrilevel in very white suburban New Jersey; there, they're thrown even more curves and hard balls. How they cope, fall apart, and grow up is the meat of the story, and it is fine. Newcomer Hagen's understanding of the mix of love, banality, humor, and sadness that are the features of family life is deep and nearly flawless: a lovely book. Agent: Henry Dunow
From the Publisher
“The Laments is a fine novel, about family, migration, identity, and the struggle to find and hold on to it. It is also hugely entertaining and very, very funny.”
—Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy

“A vital international journey through the vicissitudes of family life. This story, centering on the timeless theme of a child swapped at birth, is immensely readable, funny, and touching—a complete joy.”
—Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

“George Hagen’s highly entertaining debut novel features an irresistibly headstrong family, a global sweep, and not only a sense of loss and displacement that’s perfectly in tune with the world we live in but also a full measure of resilient humanity.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

Product Details

Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged, 9 CDs, 10 hrs.
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 6.15(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Laments

By George Hagen

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by George Hagen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400062217

Chapter One

Chapter 1


Perhaps the Lament baby knew that his parents couldn’t name him. Moments after birth he displayed a cryptic smile, an ear-to-ear gape at the fuss displayed over his hospital crib as relatives argued over his Christian name. His mother, Julia Lament, particularly felt the burden. A child’s name is his portal to the world. It had to be right.

“If people were named at the end of their lives, we wouldn’t have mistakes like selfish children named Charity, and timid ones named Leo!” she declared.

Julia’s namesake was a monstrous chieftain of a great-grandfather named Julius, a surly copper magnate of Johannesburg, South Africa, married three times, arrested for slowly poisoning his last wife through nightly glasses of milk dosed with arsenic. Even after his incarceration, the Clare family insisted on naming their children after him in a desperate attempt to win his favor and thereby keep the copper mines in the family. Hence: four Julias, two Juliuses, a couple of Julians, several Juliannas, and a particularly nasty lapdog named Ju Ju.

Spitefully, Uncle Julius left his fortune to a nurse in the prison hospital. Her name was Ida Wicks, and she was neither compassionate nor attentive; in fact, she belittled her patients’ maladies in contrast to her own, which included poor circulation, migraines, lumbago, shingles, bunions, and tinnitus. Nevertheless, Uncle Julius appreciated seeing a woman every morning during his last days on earth, and Nurse Wicks survived her ills long enough to spend his money—a task that kept her cold heart beating a few hours beyond her one hundredth birthday.

Howard Lament, loving husband to Julia and father to the nameless baby, felt a sense of urgency about giving the child a name, even if it was the wrong one. An efficient man, with a broad forehead, a waxen droop of a nose, and a swath of copper hair that curled into a question mark between his temples, Howard abhorred indecision.

“I’ll give him my name—that’ll do,” he said. “After all, it’s tradition!”

Julia had never been a strong voice for tradition. She had learned a thing or two from Uncle Julius, not to mention having been brought up in the dusty tradition of the girls’ boarding school.

“Tradition.” She sniffed. “What has tradition ever done for anybody?”

“Oh,” sighed her husband, “darling, please don’t go on about that school again.”

Abbey Gate School for Girls was a Gothic eyesore of immense timbers, roofed with gray slate and thick, bulbous chimneys. The absurdly slender windows seemed designed primarily for defense, a hint of the architect’s conviction that modern girls needed to be protected from all manner of assault. Guided by sparse incandescent lighting down dark-paneled corridors, the girls walked in single file with silent footsteps. Learning at Abbey Gate was a regrettable chore requiring swift, accurate replies and a minimum of opinion.

Julia, helplessly opinionated and impulsive, did not fit in. Her raven-blue hair was a tangled mesh that fought the comb and brush, and, when braided, never hung properly like the other girls’. Though her peers took notes with unquestioning faith, Julia granted no teacher that privilege. Not a lesson passed in which her hand didn’t rise in challenge, flicking her braid back and forth like a cat’s subversive tail.

Julia’s nemesis was the head of classics at Abbey Gate. Mrs. Ur-quhart had the face of a spinster—a myopic squint, thin, ungenerous lips, and copious facial hair. Nevertheless, her husband could be found sleeping at all the important school functions. He was a taxidermist with thickly whorled spectacles and a waist that began at his armpits.

Mrs. Urquhart taught Shakespeare as a series of morality lessons—chiefly about the institution of marriage. “Girills,” she screeched in her Glaswegian burr, “girills, Lady Macbeth drove her husband to a bloodthirsty end, proving, once again, that the criticisms of a wife are best kept to herself lest her husband take them to heart and slaughter his way to the throne. . . .”

In a flash, the hand of Miss Julia Clare would shoot up, entwined by the recalcitrant braid, intent on an urgent and passionate rebuttal. The scholarly badger, who hated contradiction and despised the Socratic method, would cast a blind eye to the twitching braid until her pupil’s gasps became too insistent to ignore.

“What is it, Miss Clare?”

“Perhaps, Mrs. Urquhart, Lady Macbeth was simply fed up with listening to her husband complain about his station in life!”

“I cannae hear yuh, Miss Clare, speak louder next time.” Mrs. Urquhart smiled, as if that settled the matter.

“Consider Macbeth, Mrs. Urquhart,” the girl persisted. “No backbone, no confidence, believing a gaggle of old biddies stirring a cauldron. I mean, what a dope of a Scotsman!”

A hush of delight spread across the classroom as the girls watched their mentoress blanch; not one day passed that she didn’t wear the official green-and-black tartan of the Urquharts (didn’t she play the bagpipes for the school as a special treat on Robert Burns’s birthday?). Her great badgerly whiskers rose in outrage; she removed her misty tortoiseshell glasses and drew up her massive Caledonian breast.

“Ere yuh presuming to divine Shakespeare’s truh intention, four hundred years after his death, Miss Clare?”

Even as she trembled before this woman, there was in Julia Clare a stubborn refusal to be intimidated by anyone. Softly, she replied, “No more than you are, Mrs. Urquhart.”

Now the gnarled, nicotine-stained fingers of her teacher, clutching a yellowed and crusty handkerchief, stabbed the air in the direction of the door.

“Get oot of mah class!”

“With pleasure, Mrs. Urquhart.”

Julia Clare took the familiar route to the Office of the Head-mistress, sitting in penitence on a hard oaken bench in the foyer—punishment far worse, in fact, than any time spent with the headmistress. Mrs. Grace Bunsen, a woman unrelated to the inventor of the famous burner yet possessed of a bright flame of hair (the color of Double Gloucester cheese, curiously similar to the hair of Julia’s future husband), by virtue of her mercy reinforced Julia’s belief that a Christian name is a window into one’s character.

Said Grace, “Julia, when will you realize that some opinions, however inspired, are best kept to yourself?”

“Forgive me, Mrs. Bunsen, but every word out of Mrs. Urquhart’s mouth is insulting to women!”

With a dignified frown, Grace Bunsen would ask for the particulars—which produced considerable mirth when she conveyed them to the faculty. Julia was unaware of her fame in the teachers’ lounge; its shabby armchairs and unemptied ashtrays were the hub for Julia stories while Mrs. Urquhart nursed one of her pungent Malayan cigars beneath a cedar tree on the school grounds, spitting tobacco-stained saliva at the squirrels.

“but what shall we name our son?” asked Howard as Julia stared at the ceiling from her hospital bed.

“I’m busy thinking,” replied Julia, though she was really thinking of Beatrice. Parenthood has, as one of its side effects, the quality of recasting all childhood experience.

It was Mrs. Urquhart’s butchery of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing that finally dissolved Julia’s veil of respect. Beatrice was Julia’s favorite character, sharp-spoken, skeptical of love, but, when stoked, possessed of a fiery passion; most of all Julia loved Beatrice’s tongue, for she was a character armed with quick and witty retorts, a woman who always knew what to say.

It wasn’t as though Mrs. Bunsen hadn’t warned Julia ahead of time.

“Julia, you’re certainly entitled to disagree with her, but do try to express it without insulting her heritage.”

“She provokes me!”

“She’s your teacher, Julia. Further arguments could lead to your expulsion.”

The last thing Julia wanted was to disturb the volatile relationship between her parents. Her father, Adam Clare, a bureaucrat at the Electricity Supply Commission in Johannesburg, had never made enough money to please his wife, and couldn’t wait for the weekends to go hunting or fishing. Her mother, aptly named Rose, was strikingly beautiful, prickly to the touch, a woman who had criticism for everyone, especially her daughter. The only thing worse than the disharmony at home was the prospect of being sent home to be the source of it.

In the next month, Julia behaved herself while Mrs. Urquhart blamed Desdemona for Othello’s bad end and Juliet for tempting Romeo. Julia, to her credit, resisted the thrashing Mrs. Urquhart gave her beloved Beatrice until almost the very end. She remembered the warnings of her headmistress, and perhaps in the disapproval of Mrs. Urquhart she heard a more primal voice, the voice of Rose, who found her daughter’s presence so unsatisfactory that she had bundled her off to boarding school at the age of seven. The classics teacher observed her young foe’s reticence—hands buried under her knees, mouth zipped shut—so when it seemed clear that her gadfly wouldn’t sting, she ended her lecture with this final remark: “You’ll notice how often Beatrice seeks the last word in any scene—clearly an insecure and weak young woman.”

A weak woman? Beatrice?

The girls turned for the volley. Julia wiped the beads of sweat along her upper lip—another quality her mother disliked. “She’s assuredly your child, Adam. See how she sweats from the most masculine parts of her body!”

Mrs. Urquhart folded her arms—gauntlet dropped. Waiting. Julia bit her lip so hard she could feel the blood on her tongue; her mind was fixed on Mrs. Bunsen’s warning. Still, the faces of the girls were trained on her while the hirsute harpy gloated in triumph.

Julia then, without realizing it, fixed one eye on the puckered face of her teacher and raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Madam, if what you say about Shakespeare reflects life, then all men are the dupes of women, and all women are the mistresses of their destruction. What would Mr. Urquhart say to that, I wonder?”

Heads were lowered to desks, as if to avoid the return fire from this verbal torpedo.

Mrs. Urquhart squinted, regarding the mock innocence of her assailant with a bobbing craw.

“Miss Clare—you’ll nae sit in my class e’er again!” she sputtered.

Julia was found by her father at the train station, in her uniform, a blue-and-gray tartan, a wide straw hat, and white kneesocks. Perched on a large trunk, she cradled her dog-eared copy of Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare.

“Well, missy,” he said. “What a mess we’re in now.”

He was a striking man, tall, with blue-black hair cropped short, thick eyebrows, and strong cheekbones. She liked to imagine a more savage version of him slaughtering Hadrian’s legions in the heather.

“I’m so sorry, Papa,” she replied.

He deflected her apology with a soft shrug.

“How’s Mummy? Tell me all the news. Do I look taller?”

Her father hesitated.

“Yes, missy, I think you might be as tall as your mother.”

“You must measure us together. Where is she?”

Adam Clare dug into his jacket pockets, nervously looking for his pipe, then, sighing, he dropped his shoulders and looked at Julia with an abashed smile.

“The thing is, missy, your mother and I are divorced.”

The sun broke through the fever trees, and Julia tried to shield the harsh light from her eyes with both hands.

“What?” she said, hoping she had misheard, and yet knowing she hadn’t.

“Our marriage is over.”


“Oh, last Christmas, actually.” Her father swallowed. “We were going to tell you this next summer, I suppose, but . . . well, here you are.”

Here she was. A loose end to the marriage. An attached string somebody had forgotten to clip.

“What will I do?” she asked.

“Well, luckily they’ve accepted you at Saint Mary’s.” He smiled. “You’ll continue your studies, grow up, and have a wonderful life.”

Julia was sure that Beatrice would have summoned the right riposte, but she couldn’t imagine what it was. By the time her outrage found words, her father was busy negotiating with a porter for the shipment of her trunk to the new school. Then he offered her an ice cream and Julia heard herself thanking him for the treat through hot tears.

“It just doesn’t seem right to name a child after oneself,” Julia told Howard as she looked at her new baby boy, “when he may not feel kindly toward you later in life.”

“What could he possibly have against me? I’m certainly not going to make my father’s mistakes.” Howard laughed.

Julia didn’t answer. She recalled her parents making only one mistake—marrying each other.

Though the Lament baby’s eyes were closed, the power of his smile was astounding. If ever a child possessed a confident spirit, this one excelled in that regard. No parent could doubt that this baby, in spite of his lack of a name, was destined for a happy life.

Excerpted from The Laments by George Hagen Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

GEORGE HAGEN had lived on three continents by the time he was twelve. The Laments is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.

Brief Biography

Brooklyn, New York
Date of Birth:
April 18, 1958
Place of Birth:
Harare, Zimbabwe
B.F.A., 1987

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Laments 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Rose Adamson Gender: Female Age: 17 Appearance: wears a pastel pink skirt with pale mint green leggings. Her shirt is a light purple. Is very tall. Has blue eyes and blonde hair Powers: n/a Persona: Is very, VERY, girly. Will try not to get dirty or anything. If another war was to break out, she would be a nurse or something. Kin: Sina Other: ask! •?• Name: Sina Adamson Gender: Female Age: 18 Appearance: really tall. Has pale gray hair (Not like old people hair gray) and bright purple eyes. Look up Fem! Prussia. Her outfit looks exactly like Sina's Powers: she is the personified Arien Empire. If the Empire's economy etc. is doing bad she suffers. She is immortal unless the Empire is suffering so bad it collapses then she can die. Persona: is very serious and studies and reads a lot. Trains most of the time. Kin: She is adopted but considers Rose her blood sister Other: ask
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best that I have ever read. As soon as you begin this book you will be lost in the emotions of the characters and will be whisked on a humorous,sad,exciting,and utterly unbelievable story of a unique family.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book about a family and their journey through life....it will make you laugh out loud and it will also make you cry. I loved this book. It is a real trip through life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this fabulous book in one day (even sneaking a few pages at work too!) Right away I was taken by the flawless writing and taken to places I could only imagine. I hope this writer is in the works for another book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Eccentricity is the order of the day with this family as they globe trot through differnt cultures oblivious to their surroundings. It is a hilarious account of a family on a merry-go-round spinning in different directions.