2005 fiction winner

The Laments | George Hagen

Photo of authorAbout the author
George Hagen had lived on three continents by the time he was twelve. The Laments is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.

About the book
Howard and Julia Lament are reveling in the birth of their first child, a son. Undecided on the perfect name for Baby Lament (A child’s name is his portal to the world, thinks Julia), Dr. Underberg asks them a most unorthodox question: would they consider letting their child nurse as a surrogate for a mother whose baby was born prematurely? After a brief deliberation, they agree, and this single decision shapes the rest of their lives.

The surrogate mother subsequently kidnaps the Laments newborn and both are killed in a fatal car accident. Julia and Howard reel from their loss, but Dr. Underberg suggests they adopt the premature child as their own. As far as most were concerned, the matter ended there, but Julia struggles for years with the hidden story of her sons true identity.

Howard is an engineer who dreams of irrigating the Sahara and is determined that he and Julia will see the world like other Laments. Julia is a fiery spirit who must balance her husband’s oddly peripatetic nature with unexpected aspirations of her own. The baby named Will is a waif with a paper-thin heart. As Will makes his way from infancy to manhood in an affably dysfunctional family that careens from continent to continent, one wonders where the Laments will ever belong.

In Bahrain, Howard takes a job with an oil company and young Will makes his first friend. But in short order the family is wrenched off to another land, due to his mother’s complicated friendship with American siren Trixie Howitzer. In Northern Rhodesia, during its last days as a white colony, the Lament twin enfants terribles, Marcus and Julius, are born. But soon the family’s life is upturned again, this time by their neighbor Major Buck Quinns suburban tirades against black self-rule. Envisioning a more civilized life on the sceptered isle, the Laments board an ocean liner bound for England.

However, life in the United Kingdom begins to tear at the family: Howard is extremely unhappy in his job, Will suffers the torments of his schoolmates, Julia begins to wonder about working outside the home, and the twins engage in mischievous activities. No sooner has Will settled into his new life does Howard accept a job in New Jersey. Both Will and Julia are hesitant to start over again, but they follow the family motto- Laments travel!- and head to America. It is in this final chapter that the family is forever changed. Roles are reversed, fates met, identities revealed, and the story of The Laments comes full circle.

Critics / Reviews

“A thrill ride: bleak, deep and hilarious… a family story on speed, with a jolt of black comedy that makes it a close relative to that greatest of all American family stories, The Simpsons.”  —The New York Times Book Review

“Charming… enjoyable, inviting… Hagen has shaped an affectionate family portrait in which the characters come vividly to life.”  —The New York Times

“Heartrending and surprisingly comic… The briskly paced narrative crackles with dry wit, and its abundant surprises will make you weep and guffaw in equal measure.”  —People

“Part travelogue, part melodrama and part tall tale, The Laments is the playful and heartfelt story of a family and a world that can’t sit still.”  —Los Angeles Times Book Review