Johnston’s new novel ‘took some chances’

Tara Bradbury
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Author signing books in St. John’s this weekend

One doesn’t have to look far in literature to find themes of longing between a son and his mother. Oedipus is the classic example, while Hamlet comes a close second.
What’s new in Wayne Johnston’s latest book, “The Son of a Certain Woman,” are the risks he takes that go beyond lust: incest, a lesbian relationship among sisters-in-law and an unbaptized boy with a congenital birth defect, raised by a single mother, all set in 1950s St. John’s.

It’s a departure from his more recent works, which have been focused on historical fiction, and a return to his very first books, like “The Story of Bobby O’Malley,” published when Johnston was just 27, and “The Divine Ryans,” which was adapted into a film.

“I wanted to write something that took some chances,” he told The Telegram. “I always like to write about people who are kind of on the edge; they’re outsiders in some way. It always seems to me that you can best convey what a society is like by asking yourself how does it treat its weakest members or its most vulnerable ones or its most supposedly sinful ones.”

The “certain woman” in the book is Penelope, a single mother secretly in love with her would-be sister-in-law. Her son is Percy, a boy born with a port wine-stain birthmark on his face and enlarged hands and feet, taunted and bullied by his peers. Penelope is intelligent, gorgeous and lusted after by everyone in town — including Percy.  The incest involves mother and son, with Percy as the instigator and Penelope contemplating how to save him from a life of celibacy.

“I don’t call it incest because usually incest involves a grown-up person preying upon a younger one,” Johnston said.

“What you have in this case is a woman who sees the predicament her son is in, and is not a predator but simply responds to what he feels for her, and if you imagine what most mothers would do for their children, they would give a kidney, they would give a lung, they would probably die for their kids. It doesn’t strike me as too much of a stretch that a woman who truly believed that her son had no other way of intimate contact with another human being might consider what Penelope considers.”

The book is set in a Catholic part of St. John’s, near the Basilica, and Johnston wanted to create a very repressive, oppressive atmosphere, then explore how the family would survive and thrive in it. Those are things, he said, he found out for himself while writing the book.

“The Son of a Certain Woman” was recently longlisted for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, alongside 12 other books, three of them also written by Newfoundlanders: Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s “How to Get Along With Women,” Lisa Moore’s “Caught,” and Michael Winter’s “Minister Without Portfolio.”

Johnston is on a book tour, and will be in St. John’s Sunday. He’ll be reading from his book at Chapters starting at 2 p.m., after which he’ll take questions and sign copies.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Story of Bobby O’Malley, The Telegram

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