May 31, 2020

24° C, Partly cloudy

Full Forecast

Help us deliver reliable news during this pandemic.

We are working tirelessly to bring you trusted information about COVID-19. Support our efforts by subscribing today.

No Thanks Subscribe

Already a subscriber?


Advertise With Us

Incest novel transcends controversy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/9/2013 (2444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.


Advertise With Us

Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.

To those who have made donations, thank you.

To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.

The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.

After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.

If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.

We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.

The Free Press would like to thank our readers for their patience while comments were not available on our site. We're continuing to work with our commenting software provider on issues with the platform. In the meantime, if you're not able to see comments after logging in to our site, please try refreshing the page.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.


Advertise With Us