Excerpt from The Laments by George Hagen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Laments

A Novel

by George Hagen

The Laments by George Hagen
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2004, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2005, 384 pages

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Chapter 1
Unnamed

Perhaps the Lament baby knew that his parents couldn’t name him. Moments after birth he displayed a cryptic smile, an ear-to-ear gape at the fuss displayed over his hospital crib as relatives argued over his Christian name. His mother, Julia Lament, particularly felt the burden. A child’s name is his portal to the world. It had to be right.

"If people were named at the end of their lives, we wouldn’t have mistakes like selfish children named Charity, and timid ones named Leo!" she declared.

Julia’s namesake was a monstrous chieftain of a great-grandfather named Julius, a surly copper magnate of Johannesburg, South Africa, married three times, arrested for slowly poisoning his last wife through nightly glasses of milk dosed with arsenic. Even after his incarceration, the Clare family insisted on naming their children after him in a desperate attempt to win his favor and thereby keep the copper mines in the family. Hence: four Julias, two Juliuses, a couple of Julians, several Juliannas, and a particularly nasty lapdog named Ju Ju.

Spitefully, Uncle Julius left his fortune to a nurse in the prison hospital. Her name was Ida Wicks, and she was neither compassionate nor attentive; in fact, she belittled her patients’ maladies in contrast to her own, which included poor circulation, migraines, lumbago, shingles, bunions, and tinnitus. Nevertheless, Uncle Julius appreciated seeing a woman every morning during his last days on earth, and Nurse Wicks survived her ills long enough to spend his money—a task that kept her cold heart beating a few hours beyond her one hundredth birthday.

Howard Lament, loving husband to Julia and father to the nameless baby, felt a sense of urgency about giving the child a name, even if it was the wrong one. An efficient man, with a broad forehead, a waxen droop of a nose, and a swath of copper hair that curled into a question mark between his temples, Howard abhorred indecision.

"I’ll give him my name—that’ll do," he said. "After all, it’s tradition!"

Julia had never been a strong voice for tradition. She had learned a thing or two from Uncle Julius, not to mention having been brought up in the dusty tradition of the girls’ boarding school.

"Tradition." She sniffed. "What has tradition ever done for anybody?"

"Oh," sighed her husband, "darling, please don’t go on about that school again."

Abbey Gate School for Girls was a Gothic eyesore of immense timbers, roofed with gray slate and thick, bulbous chimneys. The absurdly slender windows seemed designed primarily for defense, a hint of the architect’s conviction that modern girls needed to be protected from all manner of assault. Guided by sparse incandescent lighting down dark-paneled corridors, the girls walked in single file with silent footsteps. Learning at Abbey Gate was a regrettable chore requiring swift, accurate replies and a minimum of opinion.

Julia, helplessly opinionated and impulsive, did not fit in. Her raven-blue hair was a tangled mesh that fought the comb and brush, and, when braided, never hung properly like the other girls’. Though her peers took notes with unquestioning faith, Julia granted no teacher that privilege. Not a lesson passed in which her hand didn’t rise in challenge, flicking her braid back and forth like a cat’s subversive tail.

Julia’s nemesis was the head of classics at Abbey Gate. Mrs. Urquhart had the face of a spinster—a myopic squint, thin, ungenerous lips, and copious facial hair. Nevertheless, her husband could be found sleeping at all the important school functions. He was a taxidermist with thickly whorled spectacles and a waist that began at his armpits.

Mrs. Urquhart taught Shakespeare as a series of morality lessons—chiefly about the institution of marriage. "Girills," she screeched in her Glaswegian burr, "girills, Lady Macbeth drove her husband to a bloodthirsty end, proving, once again, that the criticisms of a wife are best kept to herself lest her husband take them to heart and slaughter his way to the throne. . . ."

Excerpted from The Laments by George Hagen Copyright© 2004 by George Hagen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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