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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Ten) - "The Son of a Certain Woman" by Wayne Johnston

Day Ten of my Book Advent Calendar means an author whose surname begins with the tenth letter of the alphabet.  I’ve decided on a Newfoundland writer, Wayne Johnston.  My review is of his most recent novel, though several of his others I would also recommend:  The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, The Navigator of New York, and A World Elsewhere.

Day Ten:  The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston
4 Stars

The “son” is Percy Joyce, a disfigured child born in the 1950s in St. John’s, NL. The “certain woman” is Penelope, Percy’s unwed mother, whose Elizabeth Taylor beauty and Sophia Loren voluptuousness are such that Percy begins his story with this statement: “Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us” (3). These four people live secret lives in the shadow of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: Penelope and Medina are lovers, although Penelope occasionally has sex with Pops, the boarder, so he will help pay the mortgage. Penelope justifies her actions by saying, “Better I be a prostitute than we all be destitute’” (113).

Of course living in the middle of “Catholicism Central . . . [where] there were seven Christian Brothers-and-nuns-run schools within a stone’s throw of each other” meant there was “no separation between Church and Fate” (23). The Archbishop interprets Percy’s birth on June 24, the feast day of St. John’s patron saint, as an indication of his specialness and so “directed his assistants to find out everything they could” (45) about Percy and his family. Brother McHugh, the principal of the boys’ Catholic school across the street from the Joyces, is set the task of bringing Percy, “an unbaptized, non-denominational renegade,” and Penelope, “a recalcitrant, non-churchgoing maverick,” (9) into the church. The scrutiny placed on their home is not welcomed: “It was not a good time or place for anyone to be known to be sleeping with anyone they weren’t at least engaged to. A woman caught with a woman or known to be in love with one would likely be sent to jail or deemed to be insane and committed until she was ‘cured.’ For certain [Percy would] have been taken away” (22-23).

A main conflict is the residents of 44 Bonaventure who wish to live as they see fit versus the power of the Catholic Church. The institution is repressive and corrupt; members of the Archbishop’s congregation have “the power to do his bidding without discovery and with impunity” (388). Brother McHugh, the main representative of the Archbishop, for example, brags about how he can punish students who misbehave: “’I know how to hurt boys in ways that leave nothing but little red marks that can easily be explained away’” (229). He places the Joyce family under constant surveillance and bullies them into doing his bidding. The price of non-conformity is high in a place where earning the ire of church leaders would “lead to being snubbed or ostracized . . . [because] to disobey the Archbishop was to disobey God and there was no telling what would come of that” (45).

The portrayal of the almost reptilian Brother McHugh is rather stereotypical, but the social control of the Catholic Church in the 1960s is shown very realistically. As a child growing up in a predominately Catholic community, I heard priests using sermons to tell people what films not to see; I attended a wedding where the bride was not allowed to wear white because she had had a child out of wedlock; and I witnessed sadistic punishment meted out by a nun to a child who was academically challenged. I have no disagreement with the author’s indictment of the church, but some readers may take exception to his biting critique.

The novel also examines the impact of beauty and ugliness. Percy, who is perceived as a “slobbering, jabbering aberration,” (6) muses, “I admit that it might be that my inner self has been altered by my outer one. It might be, as my mother suggested, that a life of looking as I did made me think and act the way I did” (184) and wonders “how I would have turned out if I had not been so different” (211). On the other hand, Penelope, who is renowned for her beauty, suggests that exceptional beauty can also be a curse: “My mother had several times read to me [Yeats’] ‘prayer’ for his daughter: that she not be granted beauty overmuch . . . lest she consider beauty a sufficient end . . . and never find a friend” (252).

There are some very funny scenes in the book. The exchanges between Pops and Medina are scathing but hilarious, as are Penelope’s skewerings of the church. Her “Yeah Papists” cheerleader chant (86-87) and her rambling speech about the church’s misogyny (364-368) are comically brilliant. The author’s wit and literary knowledge are obvious throughout; I particularly enjoyed his almost page-long list of oxymoronic names for St. John’s (17) and the many literary allusions, both direct (33) and indirect (256).

My complaint about the book is its length. Parts of it are repetitive. Percy’s attention-seeking lies (“give me myth or give me death”) and his constant lusting after his mother become tedious. The plot also becomes predictable: Percy constantly misbehaves and so Brother McHugh and Penelope end up in constant confrontations. The book could have been about 100 pages shorter and still have achieved its aim.

I understand why the book made the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist: it is intelligent and will make readers laugh and cry. I also understand why it did not win: it addresses some controversial issues and may make some people very uncomfortable.