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From the Publisher“One of the most convincing – and the most touching – portraits of an unregenerate sinner.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Hagar Shipley, age 90, tells the story of her life, and in so doing tries to come to terms with how the very qualities which sustained her have deprived her of joy. Mingling past and present, she maintains pride in the face of senility, while recalling the life she led as a rebellious young bride, and later as a grieving mother.
From the Hardcover edition.
Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.
Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka — as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.
In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.
I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery’s edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dusttinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.
Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past — that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this — it’s my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, “Mother’s having one of her days.” Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.
Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend — as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It’s because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Posted November 7, 2002
Hagar Shipley is truly one of the most memorable characters in all of literature. Her obsession with proper appearences ultimately leads to her alienation from her family. Read this book now.
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Posted October 27, 2008
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