Wayne Johnston will read from his latest novel and take part in an on-stage conversation on Sept. 30 at the Ottawa Writers Festival. Full details here.
Wayne Johnston seduces us from Page 1 of his new novel, The Son of a Certain Woman. We are instantly drawn into the complex dynamics of the household of Penelope Joyce, a scandalously beautiful unwed mother in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The household’s eccentricities strain credulity, yet we are quickly hooked and start cheering for these screwball characters, knowing calamities could be just ahead.
Penelope is secretly having an affair with Medina, the sister of the man who impregnated her and then ran off. (Should they be caught, the two women would be carried off to “The Mental,” possibly forever.) Penelope is also earning some extra money by secretly sleeping, just once a month, with her lodger, Pops, a chemistry teacher at the Christian Brothers school across the street. And then there is Penelope’s son Percy, born with port-wine stains on his face and oversized feet and hands. Still a child, Percy longs to sleep with his mother, fearing she is the only woman who would ever be willing to have sex with him.
Percy’s incestuous feelings dominate this story. We understand his feelings. But should we approve? And what should his mother do about it? She is torn. These are questions you will continue to ask long after you have read this quirky novel.
The villain in the plot is the Catholic church. The local archbishop takes a decided interest in the family and tries to protect the disfigured Percy from schoolyard bullies, but does not protect him from the physically abusive Christian Brothers. Considering the real-life horrors of the Christian Brothers at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, the brothers in this book are not half-bad.
Nevertheless, the church represents danger to Penelope’s household. The church threatens to fire Pops if he does not marry Penelope. Some sleuthing by a Christian Brother all but uncovers the forbidden romance between Penelope and Medina. Percy, under great pressure, tries to hold the “family” together.
Johnston is a master at creating eccentric Newfoundlanders. We saw that in such novels as The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a fictional representation of former premier Joey Smallwood, and again in The Custodian of Paradise, a portrait of an oddball journalist living alone on an island.
Such characters are larger than life. They are more like figures in a parable or some Newfoundland myth. In Johnston’s newest novel, the unreality of it all is reinforced at the end as a teenaged Percy is baptized and then experiences a surreal orgasmic adventure that may satisfy him but likely not the readers of this book. Let’s just say the ending is messy on a few fronts.