Johnston weaves ‘an extravagant tale’

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Fall into a Book, By Rosalie MacEachern

Latest novel explores themes of love, incest, religious conformity

Wayne Johnston has once again courted controversy with his latest novel, Son of a Certain Woman, just as he did with his best seller Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

Much is conveyed in the title Son of a Certain Woman (Knopf Canada, $32 hardcover), but it’s still only a hint of what Newfoundland novelist Wayne Johnston has in store for readers in his newest book.

Johnston, born and raised in St. John’s, garnered early acclaim for his first best-selling novel, The Divine Ryans in 1990. He has followed up with such bestsellers as The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and the Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

The latter, a novel centered on controversial Newfoundland politician Joey Smallwood, appeared a few years after Smallwood’s death and generated its own controversy with many questioning whether it was fair, or even right, to write a novel about an historical figure, particularly one of such recent vintage. For many the real fly in the ointment was the prominence of Sheila Fielding, a character who probably didn’t exist in Smallwood’s life. (Johnston, in what appears to be an attempt to have it both ways, points out there were historical rumors of such a woman, but he was unaware of them when he wrote his book.)

Suffice to say Johnston is undeterred by controversy and it’s just as well given his latest offering because he has generated more. Protagonist Percy James is challenged from birth by a huge, vividly-coloured birthmark and oversized extremities, physical characteristics that some attribute to the circumstances of his birth. His father abandoned his mother, Penelope, before Percy was born and she is reportedly lusted after by every male in St. John’s, including her sex-crazed son.

By the time he is a teenager, Percy is established as an outcast, but paradoxically an outcast with privileges that tend to add directly and indirectly to his burden.

Beautiful Penelope, like her unattractive son, is isolated, smart and profane. A loving, protective and unusually candid mother to Percy, she has two complex relationships which include sex. One is with her absconded husband’s sister and the other with an aging teacher who boards with the family and owes his livelihood to the pleasure of the church.

Penelope is also employed by the church to do clerical work from her home, where she also drinks, smokes, plays cards and dances with her lovers. Most germane to the story is the fact that it’s the 1950s and Percy and Penelope live in the Mount, which is the Catholic heart of the city, in the long shadow of school and cathedral.

With one poignant detail after another, Johnston creates a memorable neighborhood where people spy not just over fences, but also from high windows with binoculars. It’s hard to tell the devout from the depraved. His characters are complex, in the way all good characters must be, but it’s nonetheless an extravagant tale. It’s equally empathetic and creepy, as well as being riotously funny in places.

Dramatic by nature and accustomed to being shunned, Percy responds to any attention directed his way. Provided with a captive audience, he conducts his own interpretation of the traditional Newfoundland blessing of the fleet. His obsession with sex gets a bit tiring, but possibly all obsessions do. That his mother is the object of all his desire is profoundly twisted, but strangely pragmatic, as Percy perceives her sympathy for him to have no bounds.

It’s questionable how successful Johnston’s post-publication efforts to downplay the element of incest have been. He has accused the media of focusing on that taboo at the expense of the rest of the book. It’s hard to imagine he thought the focus might be anywhere else, though Son of a Certain Woman is about the heavy hand of the church brought to bear against a non-conformist mother and her son. It’s also rife with religious satire and is, to repeat, an extravagant tale, never more so than in the final chapter, which knows no excess. 

Rosalie MacEachern began reading history books as a child and the world opened up when she got her first library card. Children’s or adult’s, fiction or non-fiction, mysteries, biographies, short stories, cookbooks, political tomes and sports sagas all manage to engage her on a regular basis. She is a resident of Stellarton. If you have a book you would like to suggest, contact her at

Organizations: Knopf Canada

Geographic location: Newfoundland, New York, Stellarton

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