Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God
McClelland & Stewart, 1966

Rachel Cameron’s List of Problems:
1. Mother
2. Work
3. Loneliness
4. Manawaka life
and last, but not least,
5. Rachel Cameron.

Her mother is getting older, and she not only has heart problems, but a brilliant capacity for passive-aggressive attacks. Rachel is her primary care-giver. At thirty-two years old, two adults in a tight quarters would be challenge enough. (They are living above what was once Rachel’s father’s funeral parlor, which has been taken over by another although the living quarters are still the Cameron’s.) But Rachel’s mother is what’s politely referred to as a “difficult personality”.

“Once when I [Rachel] was quite young, she said to me ‘Whatever people may say of it, your father is a kind man — you must always believe that, Rachel.’ Until that moment it had never occurred to me that he might not be thought a kind man. No wonder he never fought back. Her weapons are invisible, and she would never admit even to carrying them, much less putting them to use.”

Rachel might choose to focus on her career, but that’s not exactly satisfying either. The classroom, playground, and teacher’s lounge scenes all subtly reveal Rachel’s struggle to balance her attachment to her elementary school students with her realization that her impact is limited, and her detachment from her co-workers and boss.

“There’s nothing lasting. They move on, and that’s that. It’s such a brief thing. I know them only for a year, and then I see them changing but I don’t know them anymore.”

She finds her position unrewarding and alienating (a state exacerbated by her inability to engage with Calla and Willard). And even though she might have shared some of this with fellow teacher Calla (who also struggles with this, saying for instance that she tries not to say “my kids” when talking about her students), that isn’t possible.

“Calla is standing in the doorway looking like a wind-disheveled owl, a great horned owl, her fringed hair like grey-brown feathers every which way, her eyes ringesd with the round brown frames of the glasses she wears only rarely so that they never stop seeming unusual on her. She looks so comically earnest that I feel badly, and wonder why I haven’t asked her over to our place more often.”

In fact, there really isn’t anyone to whom Rachel can speak. She has a sister, but Stacey is wholly preoccupied with her marriage and family and the weekly letter she sends is her contribution to her mother’s caregiving. Rachel has a hundred things she needs to talk to someone about, just ordinary things, like her unresolved issues with her father’s death (and his role in the community as the funeral home director). And, yet, she feels isolated and alone.

And then she has something extraordinary that she needs to talk to someone about, desperately needs to talk to someone about. Something that she is seemingly unequipped to handle: a crisis that threatens to completely and entirely unroot her existence.

“As I walk on, I don’t seem to be seeing the street. I can smell the dust that is blown along the sidewalk by the incessant summer wind. I can hear the store awnings fluttering and flapping like the exhausted wings of pelicans.”

And of course a crisis in a town as small as Manawaka only serves to highlight the restrictions that such a small community places on an individual who is struggling with immense dissatisfaction with her identity. Rachel recognizes that she needs to change, but it seems impossible.

The following quotation is actually about her desperate and pressing need to leave a community event, but it also applies to the desire she feels to escape in a wider sense, escape Manawaka, escape the person she has become:

“I must leave. I cannot stand this. But I cannot move. I see myself having to say ‘Excuse me — pardon me,’ scraping and bumping past the other people in this row, feeling them glae at my discourtesy, having to push past this boulder of a man next to me, past his solid pillars of legs and their huge unmoving hands clenched there. I can’t.”
Reading about such a lonely and sad existence might be too overwhelming in another novelist’s hands, but this aspect of the narrative — the one in which Rachel is not only aware of the need for change but is trying to move towards it and trying again and again — makes A Jest of God an accessible story.

Readers are not sitting on the sidelines, wagging their fingers at the poor woman who is simply resigned to her fate; they are engaged in the tale because it’s clear that Rachel hasn’t made egregious errors in her life and found herself in an impossible position, but she has only slipped into unhappiness. She has recognized it but been unable to resign herself to it, and chides herself for perpetuating destructive habits. (Social roles have changed for women since the 1960s, but many of the expectations remain intact; it’s easy to understand how Rachel’s situation came about.)

She tells herself: “Go on, Rachel. Apologize. Go on apologizing for ever, go on until nothing of you is left. Is that what you want the most?”

As angry as she gets with her mother’s behaviour and petty requests, Rachel is also angry with herself. Not for any one thing in particular, but for a pattern of behaviour that has accumulated into so much sadness that she’s been immobilized. In her desire for something “other”, something “more”, readers recognize instances in their own lives in which they have slipped down when they would have done better to have reached out.

In the afterword, Margaret Atwood writes:

“Much as I admire other books by Margaret Laurence, A Jest of God holds a special place for me. Possibly because, when I read it, I was at the right age to appreciate the craft that lay behind its apparent artlessness.”

She continues:

“As it was, I found it an almost perfect book, in that it did what it set out to do, with no gaps and no excesses. Like a pool or a well, it covers a small area but goes down deep. I once heard a Norwegian writer describe the work of another author as ‘an egg of a book’. A Jest of God, too, is an egg of a book — plain, self-contained, elegant in form, holding within it the essentials of a life.”

A Jest of God is about mothering (and about not being mothered). It’s about teaching (and about things that were learned even though they weren’t taught). And it’s about engaging with (and disengaging from) the community that surrounds an individual.

“Interesting creatures, very young girls, often so anxious to please that they will tell lies without really knowing they’re doing it.” Above all, A Jest of God is about overcoming the desire to please, about telling yourself the truth in ways that completely upset your expectations about the life that you thought you were going to live (and then choosing your own terms and conditions and finding a better way to live it).

Does A Jest of God hold a special place for you, as it does for Margaret Atwood?