Incest Novel Transcends Controversy

Winnipeg Free Press, September 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

Incest Novel Transcends Controversy


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. …

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