Howard and Julia, Will's parents, meet a married couple and invite them to dinner. "That weekend Will got concerned that the urine in his potty was not being removed by Uda, so he took the liberty of removing it and pouring it into the carafe of olive oil to be served to the Laments' guests that evening." When the husband compliments the Laments on their bread, his wife corrects him: "It's not the bread, honey, it's the olive oil. It's Fabulous! Tangy!"
Every page of George Hagen's remarkable first novel, The Laments, is soaked in this kind of humor and light. This is a fast-paced novel that doesn't miss a beat, and Hagen cunningly bounces among characters, three continents and two decades of one family's search to find its way in the world. From the above Rabelaisian humor to his acute wordplay, Hagen finds wit in the most mundane aspects of domestic life, its minor pitfalls and thrills, giving us a confidently sculpted family novel of childhood and adulthood, of growing up and staying young.
Early in the novel Julia, a South African with a rebel spirit, moves to Rhodesia to teach and paint. "I'm sick to death of sunsets," she says when she meets Howard, an engineer. "Such a cliché! It's much harder to make noon interesting." Howard has grand dreams. He wants to irrigate the Sahara and develop a mechanical heart. Until then he is "a specialist in the conveyance of liquids through valves of every shape and size. 'It's not like being a spy or an actor, but it can be just as exciting,' he would explain at parties."
The novel begins with a compromise, a baby switch whose staging seems to have come from some modern-day Mark Twain story or Preston Sturges comedy. When Julia delivers her healthy child, elsewhere in the same hospital a premature baby ("a waif with a paper-thin heart"), is born. Dr. Underberg, who has delivered both babies, asks Julia to let the premature baby's mother, Mary, hold -- and nurse -- her child. Reluctant at first, Julia soon obliges.
"'He's all twitches and struggling like,' said Mary to Dr. Underberg. 'I call him Jack because he's always climbing up the hill' -- she giggled -- 'but once he gets to the top, wild horses couldn't tear him away from that pail of water!"'
Soon Mary forgets about her own baby and designs a hospital breakout, taking Julia's baby with her. Believing that "fate had a hand in this," Underberg convinces Howard to take the "urchin baby," soon named Will "because only a child with a will of astonishing fortitude could have survived such a sad beginning." And this is only the new family's beginning.
The Laments are, have always been, travelers. One of Captain Cook's crewmembers was an ancestor, Howard likes to say, and soon after Will's olive oil experiment and Julia's second pregnancy -- twins, -- they move to England, "an obvious destination for the Laments," Hagen writes. "Her history was taught in every colonial school, her daily conventions cast across the globe, from boiled egg and toast in the morning to afternoon tea. You might say being British was its own religion, with the queen as its pope, the objects on its altar being the brand names found in every colonial grocery: Tate & Lyle, Marmite, Fortnum & Mason, and Crosse & Blackwell."
Despite the quick pulse of his narrative, Hagen paints even the most minor of his characters with the finest of brushes, and nothing about the many stops on the Laments' ongoing picaresque adventure escapes his vision. Unable to quell his need for travel, Howard later moves the family to New Jersey, where "every other house in the development was identical, except for its mailbox -- Americans appeared to enjoy individuality only in this respect ... ." Rarely does a novel come along, much less a first offering, of such finely tuned comic invention. With The Laments Hagen has delivered a sweet novel, much more celebration than lament. He places us inside the daily rituals of this family, who constantly changes its vantage of the world, and allows them to guide us toward new angles that reveal the nuances of our own lives. Each of his characters teaches us a little something about the poetry spawned from the most trivial of our trials and tribulations.