Nevertheless, thefamily resemblance is obvious: their shared Scots Presbyterian ancestry,which Laurence views as distinctively Canadian, provides an armour ofpride that imprisons her within their internal worlds, while providing adefence against the external world. To overcome that barrier betweenpersonalities, she must learn to understand and accept their heritage inorder to liberate her own identities and free herself for the future. Shemust also learn to love herself before she can love others. Rachelreceive a sentimental education through a brief love affair: as a resultof learning to empathize with their lovers, she learn to love herself andthe people she lives with. Laurence’s emphasis is, as always, on theimportance of love in the sense of compassion, as each of her solipsisticprotagonists develops from claustrophobia to community. The beginning of “A Jest of God” extends beyond its Canadian perimetersin Rachel’s branching imagination, both into the fairytale dream worldwhich gives depth and pathos to the disappointment and despair of herpresent and out into a wider world in time and space than the grey littletown of Manawaka.
The first lines of the novel tell us everything basicto Rachel’s mind, her temperament, and her situation. The wind blows low, the wind blows highThe snow comes falling from the sky,Rachel Cameron says she’ll dieFor the want of the golden city. She is handsome, she is pretty,She is the queen of the golden city. They are not actually chanting my name, of course, I only hear it thatway from where I am watching the classroom window, because I remembermyself skipping rope to that song when I was about the age of the littlegirls out there now. Twenty-seven years ago.
. . (p. 1)The reader is engaged in sympathy with Rachel by the sadness of the gapbetween her dream-self, “Queen of the Golden City,” and her reality, shutin behind her classroom window, looking out and worrying about becomingan eccentric spinster, that stereotyped butt of cruel laughter. But weare also engaged by the range and the quality of Rachel’s imagination –and it is this, continuing through the book, that holds our sympathy, ourinterest, and our increasing respect. The golden city is at first thedream world of Rachel’s sexual fantasies where she and her prince livehappily ever after; later in the novel it becomes identified with thegolden city of Jerusalem reinterpreted as the growth of the spirit withinthe individual, a new dispensation which makes it possible for her to goon liveing, if not happily ever after, at least affirmatively.
Rachel makes a double journey. She is just thirty-four, a frustratedspinster, outwardly in bondage to her marcelled, blue-rinsed, anxious,and superficial mother, but actually in bondage was braking of properappearances as set up in her own mind by Manawaka and its expectations. She is afraid of life and death hangs over her always, especiallysymbolized by her dead father’s vocation, undertaking, and by thepresence underneath her home of the undertaking establishment that hadbeen her father’s. She makes a journey into her own mind and personality,and finally she dares to act upon what she finds there. “A Jest of God”is a record of a tortured but unremittingly honest journey ofself-analysis and self-therapy. (George Bowering, “That Fool of a Fear”)It is both complicated and daring, in terms of the novelist’s techniques.
The present, the past, the questionings and fantasies of Rachel are allwoven together instead of being completely separated and counterpointedas in the former work. All the strands come together in