Margaret Laurence Essay - Laurence, (Jean) Margaret (Vol. 6)

Laurence, (Jean) Margaret (Vol. 6)

Laurence, (Jean) Margaret 1926–

Ms Laurence, a Canadian novelist and short story writer, is best known for The Stone Angel and A Jest of God. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Margaret Laurence's fifth novel is ambitious and compelling but not quite brought off. The life of Morag Gunn, a Canadian novelist in middle age, is written in two layers and three styles. The strength and zest of the book are in the "Memorybank Movies" of Morag's orphaned childhood in Manawaka, a bleak town on the Southern Ontario plains….

The "Memorybank Movies" are livelier than the sequences of 47-year-old Morag. The past is written in the present tense and that seems to correspond to the vividness, the chewy idiom. The writing in Morag's present is in the conventional narrative past and the language is staider, flabby with words like albeit and conventional nature descriptions, two adjectives (often with a somewhat or an almost) where one or a proper verb would do, weak Latinate verbs like discern and attain. The characters in Morag's middle age lack the color and distinctive accents of her childhood.

Several good Canadian novelists, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence, set out a powerful gritty sense of place, of daily life based on economic realities and conflicts, of different ethnic peoples contending in a setting these writers know from the weeds in the yard—by name—to the mortgages and the buried history. All three create a strong breed of women characters who must earn a living, who have a keen sense of self or battle hard to find it. "The Diviners" is less effective than Munro's "The Lives of Girls and Women," which invites comparison in their stubborn landscapes, towns of sharply-edged characters, and the adventures of tough adolescent girls. (p. 6)

Marge Piercy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1974.

[The Diviners is a] long, richly textured, beautifully written novel by a gifted Canadian…. Novels as sprawling as this one is are often adipose and artless; Mrs. Laurence's is both poetic and muscular, and her heroine is certainly one of the more humane, unglorified, unpolemical, believable women to have appeared in recent fiction. (p. 79)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 8, 1974.

In three earlier novels and a book of short stories, Laurence has constructed a fictional correlative of life in Neepawa. Set in her imagined town of Manawaka, her fiction is part of a vast novel in progress. Characters from one novel reappear in another; the same lives are viewed from different perspectives; people grow up, marry, leave or die. Controlled by the hard-working and God-fearing Scottish businessmen and their wives with their acute sense of status and propriety, Manawaka is a hard place for most of its inhabitants. Everybody knows everybody else's business, and for those without a secure niche in the social hierarchy, it is a town good only for leaving.

The Diviners is the newest installment in this continuing saga of life on the Canadian prairie….

[With a story-line sounding like soap opera,] the tendency to melodrama is the continuing flaw in Margaret Laurence's fiction. A gifted, serious novelist who gets better with each novel, she has said of her work, "… what I care about trying to do is to express something that in fact everyone knows, but doesn't say." Therein lie both her strength and her limitations. She tells us many things about growing up and getting married, having children and growing old, that are important and worth remembering, but she talks too much, she belabors the obvious, unwilling to let her stories do their own speaking. There is a kind of wisdom in her novels about how people's lives progress, how we are the products and victims of our family and place. But it is often an easy wisdom, too pat, too predictable.

The Diviners is Margaret Laurence's most interesting novel because Morag Gunn is her first female character who does, at times, surprise us, who can act in unpredictable ways, the first Laurence woman who is significantly more than just a creature who gets married and has children, or worries about a lonely spinsterhood. With Morag Margaret Laurence stretches the limits of melodrama; The Diviners is a novel that makes me look forward to her future work. (p. 29)

Sheldon Frank, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 27 & August 3, 1974.

For those who know Margaret Laurence's work, The Diviners will seem a summing up, a return to familiar territory in the crowded, vital world of Manawaka [the spiritual center of her fictional world, an imaginary prairie town which is, in reality, Neepawa, Manitoba], and a fresh appraisal of that world in which various characters from the earlier novels are seen in new perspective. It is also a more consciously Canadian novel than the others, with the legends of Piper Gunn and Jules' tales of Rider Tonnerre and the days of Métis glory providing the curious amalgam of fiction and history that make cultural myth. The spirit of place is caught and crystallized too, perhaps best when Morag recognizes the coming of winter in the time-honored Canadian way [awareness of the migration of the Canada geese]….

As the novel draws to a close, Morag ponders the fate of her friend Royland, a water diviner who loses his gift, and wonders about the future course of her own talent. It is tempting to speculate on whether she is echoing Margaret Laurence's own present uncertainty: Mrs. Laurence has said recently that she may never write another novel. However that may be, one must certainly see The Diviners marking the end of the Manawaka cycle in her work; at the same time it assures her reputation as one of Canada's most competent novelists. (p. 64)

Stan Atherton, "Margaret Laurence's Progress," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1975, pp. 61-4.

[The Diviners is] authentic in every sentence, alive to experience, agreeably loose in texture….

The author of seven novels, Margaret Laurence knows all about being a woman writer, and The Diviners is good on both halves of that condition. It seems to me an unusually honest account of a woman's inner life, fully representing the recklessness and ruthlessness women sometimes disavow in fiction. This accuracy as to feeling is the best thing in a very good book, and at times recalls D. H. Lawrence in its alertness to emotional temperature. Miss Laurence may be trying to strike too many deep chords all at once, but nearly all of it works. (p. 50)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 10, 1975.