Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Incest novel transcends controversy

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This boisterously engaging coming-of-age story, already longlisted for this year's Giller Prize, is apt to spark new levels of outrage in its treatment of the ultimate taboo -- mother-son incest.

Author Wayne Johnston is one of Newfoundland's most celebrated writers. Two of his previous novels have been short-listed for both the Giller and a Governor General's Award for fiction.

Nor is he a stranger to controversy.

His 1998 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, was criticized as a defamatory fictional distortion of the life of former Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood.

Now comes Son of a Certain Woman, set in St. John's in the 1950s and early 1960s. Its protagonist is the congenitally disfigured but precocious Percy Joyce.

Born with a purple-hued face and over-large hands and feet, Percy regards himself as a freak. So does most of St. John's.

Percy lives with his drop-dead gorgeous, gay and autodidact-intellectual mother, Penelope. His father hasn't been seen since he bolted before Percy's birth while engaged to his pregnant mother.

Penelope is carrying on an affair with her could-have-been sister-in-law, Medina. She's also boinking, once a month, in exchange for help with the mortgage, her boarder, Catholic high-school chemistry teacher Pops MacDougall.

Meanwhile, half the male population of St. John's, including her adolescent son, lusts after Penelope. And the all-powerful Catholic Church, starting with the archbishop of Newfoundland, wants Percy baptized and brought into the fold of mother church.

Johnston lampoons the Catholic Church in Newfoundland from first page to last.

The principal characters -- Percy, Penelope, Medina -- are incapable of discarding the complexity of their lives for the simplicity of church doctrine, which is what makes them heroic and interesting.

Dialogue and conversation propel much of a story that's intelligent, funny and sexy. Words matter in Penelope and Percy's world, for good or ill, so they make them their tools for dealing with a cruel, cleric-driven existence.

The novel has an oddly ahistorical feel about it.

While clearly set in mid-20th-century St. John's, except for a few city streets in the area known locally as the Mount, the outside world and its events are absent.

And apart from a single fleeting reference to Newfoundland having recently become Canada's 10th province, events seemingly unfold outside of place and time.

Still, it's a fully realized portrayal of a working-class community riven by oppressive religiosity, brutal corporal punishment in its schools, neighbourhood feuds and daily heartbreaks.

And sex is everywhere, but less so sexual activity than sexual mania, much of it revolving around Percy's disturbingly alluring mother.

Johnston is such an adept storyteller that in the course of reading the novel you come close to condoning the violation it promises. (But never actually delivers.)

At the same time mother and son are seducing each other, his writing seduces the reader into conniving at their dance toward the ultimate taboo.

Johnston's penchant for notoriety may do his fiction a disservice this time round -- controversy could easily eclipse its proper consideration as a work of literature.

And that would be a shame, because, on its merits, this is a fine novel.


Douglas J. Johnston, a Winnipeg lawyer and writer, is not related to the author. Nor is he Catholic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 A1

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