Book review: The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston

By Justine Wright

This is the kind of book that would work better as a movie. The Son of a Certain Woman comes from the bestselling author Wayne Johnston and follows Percy Joyce, a young Newfoundlander who is born with a disfiguring condition that blemished his skin and enlarged his hands and feet. Percy’s life is controversial: he’s constantly struggling against his religious neighbours and his growing desire for his own mother.

It’s almost a reversal of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, complete with an Oedipus complex, but set in the ’50s in a very Catholic St. John’s neighbourhood. But the similarities end there.

This book reads like a formulaic biography — complete with a Morgan Freeman style voiceover that narrates the child’s every thought and action. At times, the narrator’s voice is dry, overbearing and extremely detached from what is going on. It often gives too much of the plot away, though the voice itself is strong and never cheapens the complex characters and issues that surround Percy.

There are a lot of characters that pass through Percy’s life. All of them are interesting and well developed, no matter how briefly they appear. None of them feel superfluous and there is always something about them that changes the main character. Percy himself never falls flat either. Nor does he fall into the trap of becoming a passive protagonist who simply narrates the more important people around him. His struggles are first, formidable and real.

However, at times I thought that some of his problems were too exaggerated and just there to make him pitiable rather than help the reader empathize with him. The novel sets up an us-versus-them mentality to help the reader swallow the controversy of a boy who wants to sleep with his mother. Ultimately though, the conflict is engaging and the characters make it work. But next time I think I’ll wait for the movie.

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