Giller nominee aims high but can’t hit all targets

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Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me.”

Thus, Wayne Johnston opens his ninth novel, The Son of a Certain Woman, long listed for the 2013 Giller Prize. With this tale, Newfoundland-born Johnston attempts his long-held goal to “one day do for St. John’s, Newfoundland, what Joyce had done for Dublin,” as he states in an essay published in the Random House Canada online magazine, Hazlitt.

Johnston indeed makes the setting a fictional force in itself, yet his desire to paint a detailed portrait of St. John’s Newfoundland leads him towards such consistency that it bordered on redundancy. He creates an interesting premise filled with tensions and the potential for a myriad of wild events, yet he releases the pressure in a slow and predictable way. Johnston is successful in capturing the essence of St. John’s in the 1960s, but he does so at the cost of narrative creativity.

The story is told through the perspective of Percy Joyce, a boy born with unfavourable—at least in the eyes of his community—characteristics. He has dark red birthmarks all over his face and a condition wherein his hands, feet, and lower lip are oversized. All this, the townspeople think, is because Percy was sinfully conceived out of wedlock to a whorish mother and a father who didn’t stick around.

From the first chapter, Percy’s experiences are filtered through his mother Penelope’s protection and reasoning. As the most open-minded, autodidactic and secular of the town, she shelters Percy from the area’s Catholic oppression and tendency to sort and assimilate people. As he grows, Percy begins to independently organize his world with a questioning disposition and lips as loose as his mother’s mind is open. Approaching his age of reason and sexual development, Percy begins to cultivate his world as a series of binaries that provoke an ever-building tension in his perception between religion and secularity; judgement and tolerance; public affairs and secrets; intelligence and ignorance. Meanwhile, he becomes aware of his mother’s place in the town as the wanted, beautiful woman to strive for, a body and face to be admired by all. Out of all of Penelope’s suitors, her son Percy falls the hardest for her.

Johnston retains unity within his setting, characters, theme, and style throughout this long work. Thus, he creates an immersive experience in the bigoted town of St. John’s circa 1960, and in the troubled mind of a mother-lusting protagonist. However, the novel lacks dynamics, as Johnston tells the predictable path of Percy’s ever-intensifying sexual desire for his mother.

Nevertheless, Johnston’s style is a form of inventiveness in itself. He manages to portray intimate human relations by focusing on the rawness of their words while rarely using indicators such as “she said.” The resulting prose is translucent and tinted, like the beach glass of Newfoundland. Johnston also uses a unique listing technique, often through Penelope’s educated, allusive, spontaneous, and dramatic speech. In Penelope’s eyes, for example, St. John’s is “The City of the Sane, the Half Cracked, and the Unmistakably Demented. The City of the Open-Hearted, the Broken-Hearted, the Half-Hearted.”

Johnston’s verbal creativity is fitting as words hold great importance in the novel’s town. Johnston describes the small-town, closed-minded nature of his conception of St. John’s in the 1960s. The characters’ interactions centre on gossip, nosy speculation, teasing, and spilling secrets.

All in all, Wayne Johnston’s story starts with an exciting opening and closes off nicely; however, it sags significantly between these points. Johnston knows how to introduce and excuse his realistic, if static, painting of a unique boy born in a close-minded community.