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A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence

A Jest of God (1966)

by Margaret Laurence

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Manawaka cycle (2)

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A Jest of God is part of Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka cycle, a collection of stories exploring women’s experience and women’s voices. Rachel Cameron is in her 30s, working as a teacher in a small Manitoba town in the 1960s. She lives with her mother in the house she grew up in, now a flat above a funeral parlor. During the summer holiday she encounters Nick Kazlik, a former school classmate visiting his parents. The attraction is mutual; an affair inevitable. Rachel is a virgin, and while the affair awakens desires she never before experienced, she is also burdened with sole responsibility for preventing pregnancy in a town where the only source of gynecological advice is the doctor who has treated her since childhood. Meanwhile, Rachel’s mother resents her daughter’s new-found social life. She unsuccessfully attempts to guilt Rachel into staying home with her in the evenings, and then stays up until Rachel comes home in order to deliver a passive-aggressive soliloquy about being alone.

Margaret Laurence tells this story entirely through Rachel’s internal monologue, including imagined conversations with Nick and her mother where Rachel tries on different ways of handling situations. Rachel is portrayed as a strong figure, but one burdened with typical human anxieties and prone to self-doubt. Laurence uses Rachel’s voice to question conventional thinking about women, marriage, and sex. Rachel grapples with the affair and its impact on other parts of her life, but Laurence also shows how these experiences build Rachel's inner strength and allow her to break free from some of what binds her. ( )
1 vote lauralkeet | Jun 18, 2017 |
I was raised in the US and had little introduction to Laurence except through the Diviners, which I remembered primarily because of the sperm stain on the woman's dress. (I led a sheltered life and was shocked about that). And when I read The Stone Angel, I was too young to appreciate the feelings therein. And, sorry to say, high school English ruined it for me.
This book I picked up because the woman in it is at a phase of her life I could identify with entirely. Rachel Cameron is trapped, totally trapped, in a life of service and guilt and concealment. It's so small town Ontario...Still, she finds rewards in her life, and eventually opens herself - only to experience additional challenges.
It's not a comfortable book. I feel so for Rachel. The scenes with her mother run right to my spine, as her mother passively-aggressively ruins her life. They are underwritten - not heavy handed at all, but the chills are there as her mother says "Don't be late, will you, dear?". Little tendrils of control.
I'm so glad I read this. It is beautiful, and written by a master. It's given me a new appreciation for Laurence after the high school destruction. I'm off to reread the others now. ( )
2 vote Dabble58 | Jan 1, 2014 |
This is not the first time I've read Canadian writer Margaret Laurence's fine novel, A JEST OF GOD. But it's probably been at least twenty years since I last read it and it has lost nothing in the interim. Laurence's probing of the single life and the kind of "quiet desperation" Thoreau once wrote about will make you stop and reconsider those people you know who live alone, or with aging parents. School teacher Rachel Cameron is a character you don't forget, and may want to revisit from time to time, as I have. Because her secret, inner life - as demonstrated in her interior monologues and fantasies - are as important, if not more so, than her actual life, which seems pretty bleak. Thirty-four, Rachel lives with her hypochondriac whiny mother upstairs over the funeral parlor once operated by her late father, teaches second grade in a school presided over by a principal who is a secret sadist, and has a brief loveless affair one summer with a former resident of the town who is there to see his parents. The story is told in the first person and the reader is privy to Rachel's most private and intimate thoughts, and THIS is what makes this ordinary tale of loneliness and desperation so very EXTRAordinary.

As I was reading Laurence's book, a minor Canadian classic, I was rememinded of another more recent novel, also by a Canadian, Elizabeth Hay's ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM, which I enjoyed equally. And I wondered if Hay would count Laurence as an important influence in her own development as a writer. I must try to remember to ask her.

I should probably confess that I might never have read A JEST OF GOD had I not seen the scrupulously faithful film adaptation, RACHEL, RACHEL starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman. It was - and still is - a small and perfect gem of film-making. I highly recommend both the book and the film adaptation. ( )
  TimBazzett | Jun 8, 2013 |
Another classic of Canadian literature and a huge disappointment for me as a fan of Margaret Laurence whose Stone Angel is one of my favourite books.
A Jest of God follows Rachel Cameron, a 34-year-old spinster school teacher in the small prairie town of Manawaka. Because it’s told in the first person from Rachel’s view, we are privy to Rachel’s thoughts. For most of the book there is a wide discrepancy between what Rachel is in her visible public life, how she deals with and appears to others, and what she really thinks and feels. Rachel’s life is dull – she lives with her mother and has no real friends. Then she meets an old high school classmate, visiting for the summer from the city, and begins an affair. That yields one of Laurence’s wonderful lines: “Some poisons have sweetness at the first taste, but they are willing to kill you just the same.”
Despite Laurence’s writing, I really had a hard time with this book. I didn’t like Rachel at all and wanted to slap her silly: she hated being misunderstood but never said what she thought. She mistook a physical affair based on lust for love, and became obsessed with Nick.
Read this if: you’ve seen the movie Rachel, Rachel and want to read the book upon which it was based; or you’re reading the entire Laurence canon, as I am. 3 stars ( )
  ParadisePorch | Nov 2, 2012 |
I don't usually re-read fiction, but I was a teenager when I first read "A Jest of God" and thought that I would see it from a different perspective now. I had forgotten how wonderful it is. ( )
  francesanngray | Aug 20, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Margaret Laurenceprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dijk, Edith vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Killam, G. D.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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If I should pass the tomb of Jonah
I would stop there and sit for awhile;
Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark
And came out alive after all.

. . . . . Carl Sandburg, Losers
First words
They are not actually chanting my name, of course. I only hear it that way from where I am watching at the classroom window, because I remember myself skipping rope to that song when I was about the age of the little girls out there now.
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Book description
'"Rachel - is it serious?" So that's it. I ought to have seen. She's wondering - what will become of me? That's what everyone goes through life wondering, probably, the one absorbing anguish. What will become of me? Me?'

Rachel Cameron, thirty-four and unmarried, is trapped by the stifling conventionality of small-town Canadian life as a shy, retiring schoolmistress and dependable helpmeet to her coy and overbearing invalid mother. Desperate for love and companionship, she risks her all in an affair with a man for whom sex and love are more trivial matters - and it changes Rachel's life in unforeseen ways. First published in 1966, this is the second of Margaret Laurence's famous Manawaka series of novels, and a powerful exploration of disappointment. The acclaimed film Rachel, Rachel starring Joanna Woodward and Paul Newman, was based on this work.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226469522, Paperback)

A thirty-four-year-old school teacher living with her mother, Rachel Cameron feels trapped in an environment of small-town deceit and pettiness—her own and that of others. She longs for contact with another human being who shares her rebellious spirit. Finally, by confronting both love and death, Rachel earns the freedom she desperately needs.

Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award, A Jest of God was also the basis of the movie Rachel, Rachel.

"Mrs. Laurence tells [her story] unsparingly, with absolute authority, using her thorough understanding of Rachel to draw us into her anguish. We know Rachel, sympathize with her, and in a sense, become Rachel, so authentic is her voice. . . . A Jest of God has extraordinary clarity, beautiful detail, as well as the emotional impact of honest confession."—Joan J. Hall, Saturday Review

"Laurence's rendition is close to faultless . . . reaffirming her ability to draw, without pathos, life-sized women. . . . Skillfully wrought and eloquently told."—Marilyn Gardner, Christian Science Monitor

One of Canada's most accomplished writers, Margaret Laurence(1926-1987) was the recipient of many awards, including the prestigious Governer General's Litarary Award for The Diviners and A Jest of God.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:24 -0400)

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