Francis followup lacks humour of debut novel


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Natural Order

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/09/2011 (4176 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Natural Order

By Brian Francis

Doubleday, 361 pages, $30

TORONTO writer Brian Francis’s 2004 debut, Fruit, was an entertaining coming-of-age novel about a gay boy with talking nipples. But his followup, which tackles homosexual issues with less humour, tastes like a big bitter lemon.

Natural Order, about small-town mothers losing their gay children needlessly, is narrated primarily by a woman in her mid-80s in a personal care home in small-town Ontario.

Decades ago, Joyce Sparks pushed away her only child, John, by refusing to accept his sexual orientation, his gay adult lifestyle and his partner.

Gayness was not the natural order of things in Joyce’s world. John died of AIDS at 31 in Toronto in 1984, and she went home and told everybody her son died of cancer.

Many years have passed when the novel opens. Joyce’s husband has died, and she has no visitors at the personal care home. She is quietly cantankerous and holds onto her purse at all times. The only humour we experience are her cracks about people in the “home,” particularly about her procession of roommates and their disgusting habits.

Then into Joyce’s lonely life comes a young hospital visitor, Timothy, a sweetheart of a man who is openly gay and reminds her of her lost son. This friendship finally allows Joyce to face her secrets and sad regrets.

This novel is not delivering any news in 2011. Most people know parents shouldn’t try to hide their gay children’s sexuality and reject their choice of life partners.

Natural Order, which flashes back and forth in time, would have been greatly enriched by multiple points of view. As readers, we long to hear more from John and the irrepressible Freddy Pender, an entertainer on whom Joyce had a crush as a young woman.

We are also curious to hear how Joyce’s husband forged his own small friendship with his grown boy in the big city, quietly circumventing his uptight wife.

Francis is good at graphic descriptions. Through Joyce, he describes old age and bodily functions and lack of care in the seniors home in a way that will certainly make readers frightened to go there one day. And John’s deathbed scene is heartbreaking in its detail: “We sat in the hospital room, our son between us. John’s mouth was open, a black hole. I pulled back the sheets and looked across his emaciated body, his bones jutting from under his hospital pyjamas; the angle of his left foot; his lilac-tipped fingers.”

But, frankly, Natural Order is just plain depressing. It is an unnecessarily hard read without real spoonfuls of humour to help the medicine go down.

It re-teaches old lessons, namely that parents don’t need to lose their gay children — and the biggest lies about our children are the ones we tell yourselves.

Maureen Scurfield, who grew up in small-town Manitoba, writes the Miss Lonelyhearts advice column for the Free Press and has had a dear friend die of AIDS.


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Maureen Scurfield

Maureen Scurfield
Advice columnist

Maureen Scurfield writes the Miss Lonelyhearts advice column.

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