I love Margaret Laurence. (I know I’m supposed to feel some ambivalence about her because she’s sometimes racist, and maybe classist, but for what it’s worth, I don’t care. Sometimes I wonder whether the politics of a writer can be left aside when considering the merits of the writing. We’ve been talking in class about this idea: whether because an author does terrible things in their work/public life, whether we then need to dismiss their writing because of their unsavory personal story. We concluded in class that, no, you can appreciate the writing while holding the author accountable for their public actions/beliefs. I don’t know if it’s the same when an author writes about their unsavoury ideas, but does so in a beautiful and compelling way.)
Not a problem in “Jest of God,” though. Margaret Laurence is paying attention to the mother-daughter relationship and the power a mother has over a daughter. Our protagonist, Rachel Cameron, is perhaps more anxious than I am (and that’s saying something these days) and her narrative reads painfully as we experience with her her (almost) never-ending monologues of self-doubt, anxiety and self-loathing. Her mother is such a horrible, horrible mother. And Rachel knows it! And the mother does, too! And the novel is more about how the two of them figure out how to make their relationship work. Sort of. It’s also about Rachel figuring out how to be in her own skin without feeling like her skin is crawling.
I appreciate the book for its merits: beautifully plotted, rich character development, haunting narrative voice. I can’t say I enjoyed it though, if only because Rachel’s anxiety was portrayed so well – and her narrative voice captivates that anxiety so well – that I found reading the novel more anxiety producing than relaxing. So I’d suggest this book only so long as you’re reading it safely on a beach somewhere and not, for instance, trying to get your own life sorted.