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book review

Wayne Johnston’s provocative tale of a son’s love for his mother is exhilarating.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The desire of a man for his mother is an old and often tragic literary theme. Oedipus gouged out his eyes. Hamlet died in a sword fight. Percy Joyce, the very contemporary hero of Wayne Johnston's The Son of a Certain Woman, follows his bliss.

Percy, child of unwed mother Penelope Joyce, is born in 1950s St. John's with a face covered in port-wine stains and unusually large hands and feet. The stains are like "red flags," eliciting his community's worst prejudices. Boys mock, girls throw stones, neighbours believe his appearance reflects his "sinful" birth. The church gets involved, with the local archbishop taking Percy and his defiant bombshell of a mother under his smothering protection. Perilously, Penelope is secretly involved in a long-term love affair with Percy's paternal aunt Medina and also sleeps with her eccentric lodger, Pops, to pay the rent.

The ensuing battle between pagans and Christians – Percy is named after Hellenophile poet Shelley while Penelope supposedly awaits her Odysseus, Percy's father – is depicted in mythic if theatrical terms. The characters stride around St. John's as if it were a stage. Penelope delivers erudite speeches, slaps foul-mouthed schoolboys and tempts all the men in town, while the sparring between Medina and Pops, in love with the same woman, can read like a Laurel and Hardy routine. In this household of misfits, crises play out with extraordinary humour, as when Percy discovers his mother's relations with Pops and Medina. The arch-villain of the piece, a gum-chewing Christian Brother named Augustine McHugh, oozes flesh-hating menace. The battle lines are familiar: the representatives of the church are repressive and predatory, while the unbelievers are dissipated and humane.

Watching the action unfold is as pleasant as sitting through a play one has known since childhood. But the reader does not sense herself so much inside the characters as before them. This detachment is curious, given what is being described: the relentless bullying of a child and his mother, the persecution of homosexuals, the hatred of female autonomy, the stifling social control exerted by a religious institution.

On occasion, the reader is invited to a deeper emotional engagement. Percy's incessant mythologizing about himself, designed to win over his schoolmates, and his efforts at pleasing his first "friend," a girl obliged by well-meaning adults to spend time with him, are poignant. So is his refusal to betray his mother even under physical maltreatment by McHugh. But he is sometimes more emblem than person. Much as the reader wants to inhabit Percy's reality as a consummate outsider, she is distanced by his implausibly self-aware musings: "I wanted to have some power over others to make up for the power that even the least of them had over me."

Toward the end, as the adults in Percy's life succumb to cruel pressure, we begin to feel the horrors of non-conformity in this place and time. Penelope and Medina tremble at the thought of institutionalization, while Percy dreads being taken away from them. A lesbian former nun, to whom Percy delivers his only genuine confession, alludes to rape and lobotomy in "The Mental." We learn, in a tearful confrontation with church officials, of Medina's abuse as a schoolchild. The rebels develop private protests against their inevitable public compliance, and the reader rejoices at their triumphs.

Most notable among these protests is Percy's intensifying sexual longing for his mother, which he identifies with freedom itself. McHugh and the archbishop force Percy to undergo baptism and acquiesce in a false announcement of his aspiration to become a priest. But during the ceremony, described in glorious crescendo, he dreams of his mother, who has apparently promised to give herself to him to save him from a life of celibacy. The real baptism takes place outside the church, when Percy's tension is released in a tremendous life-affirming orgasm.

The writing here is extraordinary Still more remarkable is the way Johnston manoeuvres the reader into an impossible choice between repression and incest. Will Percy sleep with his mother? Has Penelope really offered herself? Or is the whole thing an elaborate "myth" designed by Percy to create an inner refuge in a world determined to crush his personal autonomy? It is unclear, and this poetic ambiguity forces us to consider the options presented as if they were universal. Though Johnston's novel occasionally seems like an entertaining intellectual exercise, we marvel at the skill that led us, with our own complicity, to such an uncomfortable place.

Aparna Sanyal is a writer living in Montreal.

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