A baby is born to a quirky family in Rhodesia in the 1950s. His mother Julia was the terror of her private school. She entrusts him to a mother whose premature infant is struggling. In a lyrical passage, author Hagen paints an expressionistic vignette of Mary and her accountant type, Walter. She talks him into jumping into a fountain. She is his liberator. Mary absconds with Julia’s baby, leaving little Will to his fate. Julia and Howard adopt the preemie and raise him as their own. When Howard obtains a job offer in Bahrain, the family moves to the first of their exotic locales, where they form brief but intense relationships with the locals. Julia has twin boys who inject an element of chaos.
She tells Will the Laments have always traveled. “You’re a citizen of the world,” she reassures him, but he feels like a stranger. Alienation is the theme.
Ironic humor results from the alarmist letters Will writes to his grandmother, always picking out the nuttiest event to relate. She responds with doleful concerns which everyone ignores.
This tragicomedy sometimes proceeds with Hagen stacking the deck, breathlessly telling the lead-up to a disaster. Sometimes he shows great insight into the characters, as when Julia’s mother stiffs the waitress, and Julia waits until her back is turned to add some quarters. Incidents in the family ring true, but the Laments are an eccentric bunch. Their travails are entertaining, but not hilarious. The author is an arbitrary god who creates and destroys with all the compassion of a Roman emperor.