A warm and mov­ing fam­ily tale

The Herald - Arts - - PAPERBACK - Mar­garet Laurence Apollo, £10 Re­view by Nick Ma­jor

AT THE start of Mar­garet Laurence’s 1964 novel The Stone An­gel, Hagar Cur­rie’s fa­ther asks her if she re­mem­bers the fam­ily war cry. “Gain­say Who Dare!” she shouts, with the fe­roc­ity of an en­raged clans­man. The Cur­ries, her fa­ther tells her, were High­landers. Re­call­ing her child­hood, Hagar can still hear her fa­ther’s “Scots burr” as he stands be­hind the counter of his store in the Cana­dian fron­tier town of Manawaka, Man­i­toba.

One of the few traits Hagar in­her­its from him is a fierce char­ac­ter and “a stare that could meet any­one’s with­out blink­ing an eye­lash”. Hagar, our un­pre­dictable nar­ra­tor, is 90 years old when she starts be­com­ing “ram­pant with me­mory” and telling us her story; those around her still quail at the thought of op­pos­ing her.

Hagar lives with her son Marvin and daugh­ter-in-law Doris, both of whom are con­cerned that ‘Mother’ is los­ing her mind. We only learn of their con­cerns when Hagar is caught un­awares by the present ap­pear­ing in her thoughts of the past, which hap­pens in a dis­ori­en­tat­ing and abrupt man­ner, like some­one burst­ing into the room whilst you’re en­grossed in a par­tic­u­larly good book.

We learn that Hagar has had a quiet and bru­tal life, filled with the slow death of her fam­ily. Her as­pi­ra­tion is to be a teacher, but her fa­ther forces her into do­mes­tic servi­tude. In de­fi­ance of him, and mostly to spite him, she mar­ries a lo­cal farmer, an al­co­holic called Bramp­ton Ship­ley. After hav­ing two chil­dren, she leaves him, and he slowly wilts away.

It sounds bleak, but Hagar’s char­ac­ter lifts your spir­its in un­ex­pected ways. She is an iras­ci­ble woman, si­mul­ta­ne­ously mean-spir­ited and im­mensely like­able. Marvin wants to con­vince Hagar to move to a care home, and sweet­ens her up with Doris’s wal­nut cake. Hagar soon catches on: “Now I see the rea­son for the spread ta­ble. Am I a calf, to be fat­tened? Oh, had I known I would not have eaten a bit of her damnable wal­nuts and ic­ing”. In be­tween de­li­cious scenes of hu­mour and pathos, Laurence paints a vivid and last­ing por­trait of the land­scape and peo­ple of Canada in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury.

De­spite her harsh opin­ions of her kith and kin, Hagar main­tains an odd al­le­giance to the fam­ily line. The stone an­gel of the ti­tle watches over their ceme­tery plot, which Hagar in­sists is kept re­spectable.

Per­haps it is that old High­lander in her, who rarely asks “how are you?” and al­ways “where are you from?” Even when she is close to los­ing her mind com­pletely, wait­ing for, and deny­ing, the end, she is happy to retell her fam­ily story to strangers. It cre­ates some mean­ing in a God­less and ab­surd world.

One day she es­capes her home and finds her­self in a stone hut near the coast, telling a lo­cal drunk about the death of her sec­ond son, John. The pair then sink into si­lence and “lis­ten for the ter­ri­ble laugh­ter of God, but can only hear the va­pid chuck­ling of the sea.”

Mar­garet Laurence paints a vivid and last­ing por­trait of the land­scape and peo­ple of Canada in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury

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