Book Review: The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Wayne Johnston
Format: Hardcover, 444 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Alfred A. Knopf
Pub Date: September 17, 2013
Summary from the Publisher:
Here comes Percy Joyce.
From one of Canada’s most acclaimed, beloved storytellers: The Son of a Certain Woman is Wayne Johnston’s funniest, sexiest novel yet, controversial in its issues, wise, generous and then some in its depiction of humanity.
Percy Joyce, born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the fifties is an outsider from childhood, set apart by a congenital disfigurement. Taunted and bullied, he is also isolated by his intelligence and wit, and his unique circumstances: an unbaptized boy raised by a single mother in a fiercely Catholic society. Soon on the cusp of teenagehood, Percy is filled with yearning, wild with hormones, and longing for what he can’t have-wanting to be let in…and let out. At the top of his wish list is his disturbingly alluring mother, Penelope, whose sex appeal fairly leaps off the page. Everyone in St. John’s lusts after her-including her sister-in-law, Medina; their paying boarder, the local chemistry teacher, Pops MacDougal; and…Percy.
Percy, Penelope, and Pops live in the Mount, home of the city’s Catholic schools and most of its clerics, none of whom are overly fond of the scandalous Joyces despite the seemingly benign protection of the Archbishop of Newfoundland himself, whose chief goal is to bring “little Percy Joyce” into the bosom of the Church by whatever means necessary. In pursuit of that goal, Brother McHugh, head of Percy’s school, sets out to uncover the truth behind what he senses to be the complicated relationships of the Joyce household. And indeed there are dark secrets to be kept hidden: Pops is in love with Penelope, but Penelope and Medina are also in love-an illegal relationship: if caught, they will be sent to the Mental, and Percy, already an outcast of society, will be left without a family.
The Son of a Certain Woman brilliantly mixes sorrow and laughter as it builds toward an unforgettable ending. Will Pops marry Penelope? Will Penelope and Medina be found out? Will Percy be lured into the Church? It is a reminder of the pain of being an outsider; of the sustaining power of love and the destructive power of hate; and of the human will to triumph.
Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:
The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston, a novel longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, is a subtly shocking story of a child’s journey to young adulthood in the small and isolated town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The son of a certain woman is infamously known as Percy Joyce, the boy with a benign version of the fictional syndrome, “False Someone Syndrome (FSS),” which burdens him with dark “port wine stains” on his face and “local gigantism” where parts of his body are oversized, and in his case, his hands and his feet.
But aside from his physical “disfigurement,” he’s surrounded by two very different groups of people who hold strong, conflicting, and polar beliefs.
There are those who live with him in the privacy of 44 Bonaventure Street: his voluptuous mother, Penelope Joyce, best known for her exaggerated beauty, her hedonistic beliefs, and smart, yet sharp tongue; Medina Joyce, his illiterate, yet street-wise, masculine aunt whose fear to ride in moving cars fails to deter her from a passionate love for his mother; and Mr. MacDougal, affectionately known as “Pops,” his family’s house boarder and introverted chemistry teacher at the all-boys Catholic high school across the street, Brother Rice.
And then there are those, who, under a cloak of religiosity, work hard in influencing and eventually controlling the fate of Percy Joyce’s prodigal return to the Catholic faith from: Archbishop Patrick James Scanlon known to many as “Uncle Paddy,” whose theological guardianship of Percy begins from his use of Percy as an example in his Sermon on the Mount analogy, and continues on with consistent letters of correspondence during the holidays, and discreet instruction to Director McHugh for Percy’s special exemption in punishment and care; to McHugh’s strict and fearless tutelage on the Catechism of the Catholic Church in preparation for Percy’s baptism (“The Big Do at the Big B.”); and the unexpected support from Sister Mary Aggie through prayer cards of “Saint Drogo,” the Patron Saint of Unattractive People, though ostracized and sent to a mental institution known as “The Mental”; and the judgement and scorn from not only the whole of the town, but of Sister Celestine and her cruelty, the principal of the all-girls’ school, Holy Heart.
While the narrative is easy to read, the story’s subject matter is intrusively shocking from all sides of the belief spectrum. Readers are coerced into an emotional adventure, raising strong questions of right and wrong without any clarity due to the complexity of not necessarily the issues themselves, but the complex nature of the story’s characters. But, readers will be exposed to the fiery injustices and sorrows in the book as well as its comedic, almost absurd contexts, which sometimes begs the question of the book’s and its characters’ believability. What is for certain is the intensity in which readers may respond since the plight of Percy Joyce is no ordinary one.
But, pity is not on the menu in this novel as expected, nor is righteousness a natural phenomenon. The judgements in the book are harsh as well as misguided and the moral fibre stretched so thin, almost anything goes—and does. What is most frightening about the context of this novel lies in its extremities and the willingness of its characters to encompass these extremities to meet their desires.
“Give me myth or give me death,” is Percy Joyce’s coping mechanism, survival tactic, his motto, his hyperbolic, personal life theology, which in turn becomes the conflict and the source of the novel itself. The book on a whole is myth as survival and the stories the characters tell themselves are told to justify the choices they make, what they are willing to do, as well as sacrifice to uphold their secrets and their obsessions.
The corporeal judgement of the town towards the Joyce household showcases not only their cruelty, close-mindedness, but guilty lust for beauty, sensuality, and sex. Their judgement of Penelope’s sex appeal is indicative of their impassioned need to repress their own and obvious lust for it.
Yet, the insistent angst against the church on behalf of Penelope Joyce, while not entirely wrong in her right to the freedom of religious and lifestyle choice, does wrongfully insist itself on young Percy with the intention to determine her son’s fate, while disregarding that he may actually have one, a choice or an opinion of whether or not he’d like to become a member of the church.
And the culprits of Brotherhood in Director McHugh and Archbishop “Uncle Paddy,” seem well-bent on rather than defending the meek by reprimanding its community in its consistent ridicule and judgement on Percy and Percy’s mother, seem keen on manipulating his situation to ensure a way to use and control Percy in order to defend or advocate their religious beliefs.
While the novel speaks heavily on the issue of moral innocence and righteousness, there doesn’t seem to be any character in the book free enough to claim their own innocence.
And while the novel speaks to serious subjects and its moral implications, the characters themselves and the comedic absurdity of the plot at times reminds us to not take life all that seriously.
Percy, with his port-stained-face, disfigured lip, and gigantic hands and feet, is town scapegoat, gifted storyteller, harbourer of secrets and hierarchical sin, and religiously incarnated saint. It’s a tall order. But, no one knows this more than him, who has been duly inflicted and blessed with “False Someone Syndrome.” It’s myth or death, after all—and Percy is a survivor.
Pacing: 4 stars
Cover Design: 4 stars
Plot: 3.5 stars
A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.
About the Author:
Wayne Johnston was born and raised in the St. John’s area of Newfoundland. His #1 nationally bestselling novels include The Dive Ryans, A World Elsewhere, The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which will be made into a film. Johnston is also the author of an award-winning and bestselling memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion. He lives in Toronto.
– From book jacket.
Do you think Penelope Joyce is actively to blame for the community’s judgement of her and her obvious sensuality? Why or why not?
Do you think Percy Joyce’s lust for his mother is indicative of his isolation, ridicule growing up as a young boy with FSS? Or a fear that he has no hope of ever successfully seducing a woman in future?
Is “Pops” a weak-minded man who’s influenced by Director McHugh to do his bidding or is he a man willing to do anything (including dismissing Medina and Penelope’s relationship) in order to experience the love and desire he feels for Penelope even if it means unrequited love?
What do you think happened to Percy’s absent, biological father, Jim Joyce? If you could imagine, where do you think he would be and what would he be doing?