I enjoyed this novel immensely, although it’s a difficult read at times — not difficult to understand, but difficult to deal with the emotional content. It tells the story of Hagar Shipley, who has reached her nineties and, understandably, is declining in health. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law who are now threatening to place her in a nursing home. Passages set in the present alternate with flashbacks to significant moments in Hagar’s life, her small-town upbringing; her (rather inexplicable) marriage to Bram Shipley, a rough, isolated, uncouth farmer; the birth of her two sons; her decision to leave her husband; and, most dramatically, the fate of her younger son John.
Mirroring the flight she took from her husband in her earlier years is Hagar’s second dramatic exit: when she feels as though she is being forced to enter the nursing home, she takes off to some abandoned buildings along the sea and holes up there as long as she can. She is in no shape to be out walking around on her own, but her fear of losing her home is stronger than her fear of physical danger.
Hagar is a stubborn, strong-willed woman, with an antagonistic attitude toward the world; it does not do to cross her, as her father discovered when he tried to keep her from marrying Bram, and as her son discovers when he tries to move her into the nursing home. The novel is narrated in the first person from Hagar’s point of view, which means that we get Hagar’s explanations and self-justifications. She’s not an unreliable narrator, exactly, but we are left to infer what effect her harshness has on others rather than seeing it directly. And she has inflicted her share of psychic damage on those around her; she is harsh and unloving to her sons and is unable to express even the small amount of affection she feels for her husband. Now that she is in her nineties and is losing her grip on reality, she has an unfortunate habit of speaking whatever is on her mind without censoring it, sometimes without knowing that she is saying anything at all. The effects of these unintentional outbursts can be devastating.
Hagar is a difficult person, but the novel leads us to feel sympathy towards her, and, in fact, the interest of the novel lies in the tension between our sympathy for her and our horror at the damage she causes. This tension plays out particularly well in the story of John; throughout the early parts of the novel it is clear that some mystery surrounds his life, but the characters don’t want to talk about him, as even his name causes them pain. It is no secret that Hagar has always preferred John, and it’s obvious how much pain this causes the older son Marvin — his “flaw” is that he reminds Hagar too much of Bram, the mostly unloved husband. Obviously this is not his fault, and it illustrates just how cruel Hagar can be. But we’re also made aware of how much Hagar has suffered because of what happened to John, the son on whom she has pinned her hopes for a better life. When we find out his fate, the news is devastating.
Equally devastating is the way the novel depicts old age and the nightmare of approaching senility. The novel moves back and forth between the present moment and flashbacks, and often when a flashback ends, Hagar finds herself in the middle of some situation she cannot understand — she has been speaking out loud unknowingly or has ignored those who are trying to get her attention or has simply spaced out, and she is disoriented and confused. The first person narration captures this confusion painfully well.
Hagar suffers and inflicts suffering; in my more depressed moments I might say that’s everyone’s story. But the beauty of the prose and the liveliness with which Hagar tells her story keeps this novel from descending into unbearably dark depths. The stubbornness and spirit that has caused her suffering in the past is now what keeps her going, and as much as we might judge her, we also can’t help but admire her strength.