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The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston

The Son of a Certain Woman (edition 2014)

by Wayne Johnston (Author)

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776156,384 (2.57)13
Title:The Son of a Certain Woman
Authors:Wayne Johnston (Author)
Info:Vintage Canada (2014), 448 pages

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The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston



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What a strange experience reading this book was. I'm hoping by the time I finish typing my thoughts, I'll be able to arrive at a rating.

Schatje has provided a wonderful summary as part of an insightful review (see below), so I'll go straight to my impressions. First, I really liked the character of Percy Joyce. He was so well developed, complex, funny, tragic...everything you want in a hero. I liked the theme of fitting in by hiding who you truly are. The book was often funny and, at times, reminded me of another favourite: A Prayer for Owen Meeny. What I didn't like was the adult characters -- they seemed too over the top and behaved in ways that just didn't ring true. It was Percy who kept me reading to the end. ( )
  LynnB | Nov 20, 2016 |
Canadian, Catholicism, fiction, lesbian, Giller Prize, Newfoundland, sex, incest, 1950s, disability ( )
  kjreed | Jan 5, 2014 |
The “son” is Percy Joyce, a disfigured child born in the 1950s in St. John’s, NL. The “certain woman” is Penelope, Percy’s unwed mother, whose Elizabeth Taylor beauty and Sophia Loren voluptuousness are such that Percy begins his story with this statement: “Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us” (3). These four people live secret lives in the shadow of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: Penelope and Medina are lovers, although Penelope occasionally has sex with Pops, the boarder, so he will help pay the mortgage. Penelope justifies her actions by saying, “Better I be a prostitute than we all be destitute’” (113).

Of course living in the middle of “Catholicism Central . . . [where] there were seven Christian Brothers-and-nuns-run schools within a stone’s throw of each other” meant there was “no separation between Church and Fate” (23). The Archbishop interprets Percy’s birth on June 24, the feast day of St. John’s patron saint, as an indication of his specialness and so “directed his assistants to find out everything they could” (45) about Percy and his family. Brother McHugh, the principal of the boys’ Catholic school across the street from the Joyces, is set the task of bringing Percy, “an unbaptized, non-denominational renegade,” and Penelope, “a recalcitrant, non-churchgoing maverick,” (9) into the church. The scrutiny placed on their home is not welcomed: “It was not a good time or place for anyone to be known to be sleeping with anyone they weren’t at least engaged to. A woman caught with a woman or known to be in love with one would likely be sent to jail or deemed to be insane and committed until she was ‘cured.’ For certain [Percy would] have been taken away” (22-23).

A main conflict is the residents of 44 Bonaventure who wish to live as they see fit versus the power of the Catholic Church. The institution is repressive and corrupt; members of the Archbishop’s congregation have “the power to do his bidding without discovery and with impunity” (388). Brother McHugh, the main representative of the Archbishop, for example, brags about how he can punish students who misbehave: “’I know how to hurt boys in ways that leave nothing but little red marks that can easily be explained away’” (229). He places the Joyce family under constant surveillance and bullies them into doing his bidding. The price of non-conformity is high in a place where earning the ire of church leaders would “lead to being snubbed or ostracized . . . [because] to disobey the Archbishop was to disobey God and there was no telling what would come of that” (45).

The portrayal of the almost reptilian Brother McHugh is rather stereotypical, but the social control of the Catholic Church in the 1960s is shown very realistically. As a child growing up in a predominately Catholic community, I heard priests using sermons to tell people what films not to see; I attended a wedding where the bride was not allowed to wear white because she had had a child out of wedlock; and I witnessed sadistic punishment meted out by a nun to a child who was academically challenged. I have no disagreement with the author’s indictment of the church, but some readers may take exception to his biting critique.

The novel also examines the impact of beauty and ugliness. Percy, who is perceived as a “slobbering, jabbering aberration,” (6) muses, “I admit that it might be that my inner self has been altered by my outer one. It might be, as my mother suggested, that a life of looking as I did made me think and act the way I did” (184) and wonders “how I would have turned out if I had not been so different” (211). On the other hand, Penelope, who is renowned for her beauty, suggests that exceptional beauty can also be a curse: “My mother had several times read to me [Yeats’] ‘prayer’ for his daughter: that she not be granted beauty overmuch . . . lest she consider beauty a sufficient end . . . and never find a friend” (252).

There are some very funny scenes in the book. The exchanges between Pops and Medina are scathing but hilarious, as are Penelope’s skewerings of the church. Her “Yeah Papists” cheerleader chant (86-87) and her rambling speech about the church’s misogyny (364-368) are comically brilliant. The author’s wit and literary knowledge are obvious throughout; I particularly enjoyed his almost page-long list of oxymoronic names for St. John’s (17) and the many literary allusions, both direct (33) and indirect (256).

My complaint about the book is its length. Parts of it are repetitive. Percy’s attention-seeking lies (“give me myth or give me death”) and his constant lusting after his mother become tedious. The plot also becomes predictable: Percy constantly misbehaves and so Brother McHugh and Penelope end up in constant confrontations. The book could have been about 100 pages shorter and still have achieved its aim.

I understand why the book made the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize long list: it is intelligent and will make readers laugh and cry. I also understand why it did not win: it addresses some controversial issues and may make some people very uncomfortable. ( )
  Schatje | Nov 25, 2013 |
Percy Joyce, born in St John’s, Newfoundland in the 1950s, is an outsider from childhood, branded by congenital disfigurement. Taunted and bullied for his appearance, he is set apart on the other hand by his intelligence and wit. What’s more, he is an unbaptized adolescent living in a fiercely Catholic neighbourhood. And if all of that weren’t enough, his home life is beyond the pale.

The Joyces live in the Mount, home of the city’s Catholic schools and most of its clerics, none of whom are the least bit fond of the scandalous Joyces. Penelope Joyce, Percy’s mother, is a “recalcitrant non-churchgoing maverick” (9); a single parent, abandoned by her fiancé, Jim Joyce, before Percy’s birth; and a voluptuous looker. Save the clerics, all of the men (and some of the women) in the Mount want to sleep with her, including their boarder, Pops McDougal, a local chemistry teacher. Pops is in love with Penelope, and, although she wants nothing to do with him, they have a once-a-month arrangement for “mortgage sex.” Medina Joyce, Percy’s aunt, is also in love with Penelope – a mutual relationship between the two “Crazy Lizzies.” It’s little wonder that the Archbishop’s chief goal is to bring “little Percy Joyce” into the bosom of the Church by whatever means necessary.

The Son of a Certain Woman has been hailed as “Wayne Johnston’s funniest, sexiest novel yet, controversial in its issues, wise, generous and then some in its depiction of humanity.” I certainly can’t say it any better than that, though I’d add “quirky extraordinaire” to the list. Deserving of its place on 2013’s Giller SL, and recommended to Johnston fans, lovers of Canadian and Newfoundland lit, and those unabashed by an maverick look at Sex and Church. ( )
5 vote lit_chick | Nov 23, 2013 |
St John’s born Percy Joyce is something of an outsider’s outsider in his Newfoundland community. There’s the congenital disfigurement plus the fact that he is an unbaptized boy being raised by a single mother in a predominantly Catholic city in the early 1950s. What really sets him apart, however, is his wit and intelligence. Funny, touching, ribald and a wonderful story make this book a must read.
  vplprl | Nov 15, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Wayne Johnston’s genius for extravagant storytelling soars to new heights in Son of a Certain Woman, a painfully outrageous tale from The Rock. Narrated by Percy Joyce, a 1950s St. John’s boy burdened by a genetic disorder — his face wine-stained, his feet and hands overlarge — Johnston’s story is situated somewhere between reality and folklore....As the showdown looms and our profane boy faces religion’s sacred nets, Johnston’s story builds to an awesome finish. Okay, Percy wants to sleep with his mother. Got a problem with that? Then try on his face for a while. “Or better yet, read on.” Yes. We will. Yes.
The novel is told from Percy’s perspective, and while he is often funny, his relentless fixation on sex grows tiresome. The most engaging aspect of the book involves Percy and Penelope’s experiences as outsiders. The novel’s humour counters its essential tragedy: convention and venal power mongers are placed in opposition to human connection and love. However, Percy’s sexual interest in his mother is little more than creepy and diminishes the reader’s sympathy for the characters, who already have enough problems to contend with.
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.
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For my friend Kevin Kenneally, citizen of Canada, Ireland , the World
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Most of the people who my mother either slept with her or wished that they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us;though he was neither old nor someone's father, he went by the name of "Pops."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345807898, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:12 -0400)

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