The mid-century progress of a fragile but hugely likable family from colonial Africa to suburban New Jersey.
South Africans Howard and Julia Lament have the makings of a successful marriage. He’s a clever engineer, she a capable artist, and they both understand that it will be necessary to work to be better citizens of the world than Howard’s lumpen father or Julia’s oft-married mother Rose. Howard is willing to set aside his extravagant professional ambitions to work at boring jobs, and Julia bravely gives up painting so that they can be very good parents. But, when they do start the family, they are dealt a devilish hand. Politely agreeing to their obstetrician’s rather loopy proposal in hospital, they lend their beautiful robust baby son to a painfully lactating, loony mother whose premature baby is not ready to nurse. The unstable mum runs off with baby Lament, and both are killed in a car accident, leaving the Laments with the scrawny orphan, whom they adopt and name Will. They are fortunate. Although he of course doesn’t look like either parent, Will is quite as smart and imaginative, and, unlike his late biological mother, he sails on an even keel. Not that he doesn’t wonder a bit. As the Laments move first to southern Rhodesia and then to England, the family growing with the birth of twins Marcus and Julius, Will always finds himself something of an outsider both in the world and, inexplicably, in the family. The moves have been necessitated by Howard’s gentle downward professional spiral. Julia and Will hate leaving every place and find it hard to fit into new surroundings. Howard’s final move, when English employment doesn’t work out, is to America, where they settle into a trilevel in very white suburban New Jersey; there, they’re thrown even more curves and hard balls. How they cope, fall apart, and grow up is the meat of the story, and it is fine.
Newcomer Hagen’s understanding of the mix of love, banality, humor, and sadness that are the features of family life is deep and nearly flawless: a lovely book.