"Sisters Under Their Skins": A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers
Nora Foster Stovel
A Jest of God ( 1966) and The Fire-Dwellers ( 1969) are sister novels, both literally and figuratively. Laurence writes, In The Fire-Dwellers, Stacey is Rachel's sister (don't ask me why; I don't know; she just is)" (Ten 21) Opposing personae of the author perhaps, Rachel Cameron, the heroine of A Jest of God, and Stacey Cameron MacAindra, the protagonist of The Fire-Dwellers, could not appear more different in personality or situation, although they share a common Cameron heritage. Rachel is a gawky, introverted spinster schoolteacher who has returned home to Manawaka from university in Winnipeg upon the death of her alcoholic undertaker father, Niall Cameron, to care for her hypochrondriac mother, May. Stacey is a broad-beamed, hard-drinking, middle-aging extrovert who has escaped the clutches of the Cameron clan in Manawaka to live in the big bad city of Vancouver with her salesman husband, Mac, and their brood of four children.
Nevertheless, the family resemblance is obvious: their shared Scots-Presbyterian ancestry, which Laurence views as distinctively Canadian, provides an armor of pride that imprisons both sisters (like all of Laurence's Manawaka heroines) within their internal worlds, while providing a defence against the external world. 1 To overcome that barrier between personalities, both sisters must learn to understand and accept their heritage in order to liberate their own identities and free themselves for the future. Both women must also learn to love themselves before they can love each other or anyone else. Rachel and Stacey each receive a sentimental education through a brief love affair; as a result of learning to empathize with their lovers, they learn to love themselves and the people they live with. The sisters have not seen each other for seven years, but by the end of each novel they will be en route to reunion. Laurence's emphasis is, as always, on the importance of love in the sense of compassion, as each of her solipsistic protagonists develops from claustrophobia to community.
A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers are sister novels in practical terms also. Published consecutively 'in 1966 and 1969, the two novels were composed almost