The Laments

The Laments

by George Hagen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812972184
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/12/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.84(d)

About 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.


Brooklyn, New York

Date of Birth:

April 18, 1958

Place of Birth:

Harare, Zimbabwe


B.F.A., 1987

Read an Excerpt

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.

Reading Group Guide

1. “No one could doubt that this baby, in spite of his lack of a name, was destined for a happy life.” How does the Lament family’s vision of happiness change as they wander from country to country?

2. Will has an intense investment in the unity of his parents as a baby, linking his mother’s dress and his father’s belt loop with his finger. How does this investment play itself out to the novel’s end? What is the significance of his comment to Rose at the Statue of Liberty when he says, “I can’t do it forever?”

3. What is the significance of roses in the novel? For instance, when the Midnight Chinaman first appears, he has roses embroidered on his silk pajamas. What does his presence portend?

4. What causes Howard’s depression? Is his ambition at fault? Is Julia responsible? Or is his wanderlust the problem?

5. Will reaches out to many girls in the novel. Are Ruth, Sally, Marina and Dawn more like sisters than crushes? What about Minna?

6. What is the significance, if any, of Howard’s attempt to design an artificial heart?

7. On their ocean trip to England, Howard worries that Will needs to be tougher to adapt to England. Does Howard also need to be tougher in order to adapt?

8. Julia finds the moves from country to country more and more difficult. How do her rationalizations for moving change? Do they reflect a fundamental shift in the terms of her marriage with Howard?

9. Will is seduced by British pop culture as he witnesses it in Sally’s bedroom, with pop stars plastered all over the walls and door. Who in the Lament family is seduced by American culture, and how?

10. Britain is depicted as a nation that cannot ‘get over’ its role in World War II. Are the Americans that the Laments encounter reconciled with their past?

11. Trixie Howitzer’s marriage to Chip is rather a cynical arrangement, yet Julia is fascinated by Trixie while Howard is repelled. Why is this? What, if anything, does Julia have in common with Trixie?

12. When the Laments arrive in America, they are directed by several characters to make friends with the Himmels, who are German immigrants. How does the Himmel family’s integration into American culture compare to the Laments’?

13. Roy Biddle remarks to Will that “everyone is a racist.” How is racism depicted in the different cultures the Laments encounter? Is Will a racist? Why, or why not? Is that important to the novel?

14. The Laments place tremendous faith in what the future will bring. But Hagen describes a number of characters who revere the past: Mrs. Pritchard, for example, and Dr. Underberg, who prefers the “thousands of years of experience” that Africans have in producing happy babies to modern child rearing. How is the past pitted against the future in this novel?

15. What might have happened if the Laments’ natural born son had lived? Would they have traveled? What of Howard’s ambition and Julia’s frustration with her domesticity? Would they have been destined for a happy life?

16. Would you consider the Laments to be driven to travel by their political principles? Why do they leave Africa? Is there a contrast between the America they anticipate, and the one they find as revealed by the attitudes of their American neighbors?

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Laments 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 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
whitreidtan on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Sometimes a book languishes unread on my bookshelves for what seems like millenia. There's no predicting when I will possibly pick it up and read it; just knowing that it is there waiting is a sort of balm to my soul. In the case of The Laments by George Hagen, the book had been tucked away for years when I inadvertantly bought a second copy of it at a used bookstore this summer. Yes, I do that sometimes. On the plus side, I consider it confirmation that the book definitely appeals to me (twice). And I've made it a practice to consider it a nudge from the universe to actually get on it and read the book already.The Lament family is peripatetic in the extreme, traveling around the world, settling briefly, before heading off again in search of a place that fits them better than the one that they are in. Opening with the birth of their first son, a fat and happy little boy, there is no doubt that the family's luck is all going to be bad or impossible from the moment a mentally disturbed woman whose own infant is sickly and melancholy kidnaps the cheery and chubby Lament baby instead of accepting her own. The only recourse, of course, is to adopt her son and pretend that he is their biological child. Will, the secretly adopted Lament, spends the next many years trying to fit in with his boisterous and rambunctious family. His struggle to fit in is a mirror in miniature of his family's quest to fit in as they move from Rhodesia to Bahrain, England, and America. Father Howard is a creative and frustrated engineer with a strange affinity for valves while mother Julia is an artistic and somewhat apathetic sort. The twins, who have a deep and unexplainable twin connection, are hellions and apt to create chaos and leave upheaval in their wakes no matter where the family lives.The Laments start out the book full of hopes and aspirations, unrealistic though they may be, and they end it rather more downtrodden and definitely downwardly mobile than they started it. On the whole, the book is a tragedy but there is such wonderful dry humor and forthright writing in it that it is nothing but a pleasure to read. I truly did laugh out loud in more than one instance and if the terrible happenings quotient is higher than I'd usually find realistic, it is entertaining all the way. The characters are quirky and eccentric but they inspire great sympathy in the reader as they go through their lives. Exaggeration is rife and the explicit social commentary is hard to miss but even though I suspect Hagen of condemning my life, I still thoroughly enjoyed his novel.
MacsTomes on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Vaguely reminiscent of "World According to Garp" but not nearly as clever.
ForeignCircus on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This novel tracking the lives of a globe-trotting family paints a poignant picture of the expat lifestyle and the desperate quest to belong. Julia and Howard Lament are both trying to overcome the shortcomings of their upbringing, and find in each other all that they ever wanted. When their first bouncing happy baby is kidnapped by a troubled young woman in Rhodesia, they find themselves adopting her sickly premature son. Thus begins a life of uncertainty for both Julia and Howard as well as their son Will. Constantly on the move searching for a better job, a better lifestyle, a sense of home, the Laments instead find themselves drifting further and further from each other and from the life they once dreamed of living.I was impressed by the writing style, and the way characters in the story gradually revealed more and more about themselves as the novel progressed. At heart, I found this a sad book, and was pained by the Laments efforts to create a home for themselves in an ever-changing world. Hagen does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of disconnection that pervades the expat community even today. I highly recommend this debut novel.
TLievens on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A subtle and delicate story about a relatively normal family, changed and defined by the travels they undertake. The story basically tells about the effect all these travels have on the eldest son - from his birth through late teens. The book, especially in the beginning, is mainly a series of anecdotes through which the character of the family members become clear. The language is vivid and lively with beautifully constructed sentences.Sometimes the rhythm of the book slacks a bit (coincidently when they are in England and in the States?). Still it is a very beautiful book that I highly recommend.
carmarie on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This fictional memoir was a great read, very informative, and very recommendable. Loved it! I recommended this book immediately to my family and friends. They all loved it too.
WittyreaderLI on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I thought this book was really good. It had an interesting ending as well as likable characters!
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 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.