My Webster's defines "lament" as "a crying out in grief: wailing" or a dirge, elegy or complaint. But the Laments, the family in George Hagen's accomplished debut novel by the same name, are not given to wailing or complaining. They take their considerable lumps rather stoically, and their only concession to grief is to pick up and move on. "Laments travel" is the family motto.
Though the title may evoke visions of avenging Greek deities like the Furies or the Fates, The Laments—with its humor-laced grief and endearing, eccentric characters—more likely will remind readers of The World According to Garp. Hagen is a leaner, more precise writer than John Irving, but he shares with Irving a vision of the family as the source of both our greatest pain and our greatest solace. One other notable similarity to Garp is that both novels begin with aberrant circumstances involving the birth of a child. In this case, the son born to Julia and Howard Lament in Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s meets a disastrous fate when he is taken from the hospital by a woman who has bonded with him rather than her own premature baby. The woman and the baby both die in a car accident during their flight, and the Laments are persuaded to take the abandoned boy home as their own. Named Will, the child spends the next 18 years unaware of his true parentage, yet always suspecting that something is not quite right.
Julia is an intelligent, pragmatic and independent woman whose fundamental righteousness pits her against small-minded people. By contrast, Howard is a visionary, with dreams of irrigating the Sahara or perfecting the artificial heart, and like many visionaries, his approach to obstacles is to refuse to admit they exist. So when things go wrong and tragedies, large and small, plague the Laments the solution is to relocate. Their travels take them to Bahrain, Rhodesia, England and finally the United States. Their rootlessness is compounded by the fact that they are white Africans, a queer notion to those they meet in England and America. Never quite sure who they are or where they belong, they become simply the Laments.
Twin sons, Julius and Marcus, round out the family, and it is these two who will be the source of much of the cause for lamentation. Will has a love/hate relationship with his brothers, whose arrival robs him of the exclusivity of his parents' affections. He is jealous, too, of the inevitable bond that the twins share. The fact that each bears the physical traits of one of their parents, as Will never can, makes him feel all the more strongly that he is not quite a Lament. Compounding his sense of dislocation, all the moving around has made it difficult for Will to establish lasting relationships, and his judgment in matters of friendship, particularly once he is a teenager in New Jersey, sets in motion the family's ultimate sorrow.
Despite all the tragedy that consistently encircles them, though, the Laments are a resilient and forward-looking clan. They are fundamentally good people, with good intentions. Julia, Howard and Will the triumvirate that dominates the book each have their human strengths and weaknesses, and it is these qualities that endear them to the reader. We can hardly blame the bemused Will when he tries to distance himself from his brothers' behavior, his father's indolence, or his mother's zealousness, but we always sense, as he himself does, how inextricably he is a part of this family that has claimed him.
George Hagen has produced a truly memorable first novel, at once doleful and joyful. Individually and collectively, the Laments are not so different from any of us, with their relentless search for their place in the world and their pursuit of an iota of happiness. If these commodities elude them, it is not for lack of trying, and it is next to impossible not to appreciate their stubborn faith and indefatigable spiritedness. The Laments are a family that we come to understand, to empathize with, and, finally, to love.