- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004


By George Hagan

Random House, $24.95, 370 pages


The Laments, the family at the center of George Hagan’s debut novel, are an insatiable, thick-skinned, energetic, and peripatetic bunch. They could be your next-door neighbors — just more endearing.

Aptly and simply titled “The Laments,” Mr. Hagan’s novel is an account of the travels — geographic as well as emotional — of the Lament family. It is an engrossing odyssey, although the book occasionally lacks depth.

The Laments, nomads though they are, hail from South Africa; their journeys take them across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. They move through stations in life as swiftly as they move through countries. One day they are wealthy exploiters of the land; the next they are indebted Americans.

Family travails, richness to poorness — these are hardly new themes in the history of literature, as Mr. Hagan reminds us with his frequent allusions to Shakespearean drama. Yet the simplicity of the narrative and the dollops of quirkiness and affection make this portrayal of family life touching.

We meet the Laments at a kind of naming ritual. Howard and Julia Lament have just witnessed the birth of their first son, and they search for a properly magnificent name for him. (Lament isn’t exactly a surname to lift the spirits, after all.)

But they never have a chance. A woman in the hospital ward with a premature baby in an incubator sees the Laments’ unnamed child and falls for him. She borrows him for frequent jaunts around the hospital. One night, she swipes the young Lament progeny and flees the scene.

In a King Solomon-like bargain, the attending doctor persuades Julia and Howard to take the smaller baby, claiming it for their own. The majestic names are discarded. Instead the Laments call their adopted son Will: “because only a child with a will of astonishing fortitude could have survived such a sad beginning.”

Will is a tough baby, and not a happy baby. When he first laughs, “a high, cascading gurgle of joy,” Julia is stunned.

The birth (and adoption) of a child is the Laments’ cue to kick off their globe-trotting. Howard Lament takes a job in Bahrain, and the Laments leave southern Africa for the Arabian peninsula to begin their new life.

They seem well-suited to adventure. Howard Lament is an engineer whose dream is to irrigate the Sahara. Julia is a fiery painter who thrives on her reputation as a rebel. But Bahrain gives way to more wanderings when the Laments move to northern Rhodesia (what’s now known as Zambia), where the twins, Marcus and Julius, are born.

In both Bahrain and Rhodesia, the Laments lead the privileged lives of white expatriates, isolated from the local community. Unfortunately, Mr. Hagan has a tendency to zoom through the particularities of the destinations he presents. We are told more about the neighbor’s dog than about the local landscape, politics, or history.

The Laments, though, have their politics in the right place, and they grow uncomfortable with their racist neighbors in colonial Africa. “England was an obvious destination,” Mr. Hagan writes, and the Laments make the trek there — by boat, this being the 1960s.

They arrive in Southampton, England, but Howard’s job is disappointing, and the family grows weary of the clanking toilets and cramped neighborhood. Howard becomes restless. He sells his family on America, where the Laments finally settle, if you can call two houses in two years settling down.

Most of these peregrinations are seen through Will’s eyes. Whether because of his oddball parents or his oddball accent, Will never quite fits in. He lives through all the rites of boyhood — schoolyard bullies, pretty girls, ruthless teachers — but always as an outsider. The adopted child, he’s a foreigner in his own home, “[t]he solitary son between two couples.”

As Will grows up to become a caretaker in the family, he’s the most noble and most dynamic character of the lot. Consequently, he’s the most lovable. Mr. Hagan gracefully draws the contours of family love and devotion, but his lines depicting the enduring rivalries and alliances of the family could be sharpened.

However, the author also infuses this family tale with a sharp, endearing sense of humor. It’s like David Sedaris’ style of humor, in which life on the homestead is viewed wryly as farcical and tinged with sweetness. The Laments are equal parts disaster and hilarity. No adventure is complete without an old man missing his teeth or a child falling into a pool. Urine gets switched for olive oil; backyard gardens are accidentally excavated.

The Lament twins in particular have a knack for antics, taping ping-pong balls to the tails of neighbors’ dogs and jumping into bonfires.

And conformity is not the family strong suit. When every family on their suburban New Jersey block hangs an American flag for Memorial Day, the Laments wave the Union Jack.

Ultimately, though, slapstick antics give way to more serious troubles. The Laments discover that America isn’t all they had hoped. Monetary problems hit the family, while Julia’s pragmatism and Howard’s pie-in-the-sky spirit put the two on a collision course. With deft agility, Mr. Hagan describes a family simultaneously growing closer and falling apart.

There are a few flimsy plot lines in this book, but the central story of one family’s growing pains is compelling: What starts out as a tale of a cross-continent road trip becomes a novel about a family in flux. These transformations are not always pretty, as Mr. Hagan makes clear. But then again, neither is family life.

Carlyn Kolker is a reporter for American Lawyer magazine in New York.

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