Joyce Sparks is the tiniest bit monstrous. As the narrator and ostensible protagonist of Brian Francis's new novel, Natural Order, she's petty and narrow-minded and self-deluding, and she lets her denial about her son's sexual orientation wreck her life, and his, and his father's. She's not remorseless or irredeemable, but she's a hard woman to like.
You may know Francis as the author of the eminently likable 2004 novel (and 2009 Canada Reads contender) Fruit, a gleeful coming-of-age satire of a small-town life as seen through the eyes – and nipples (long story) – of 13-year-old Peter Paddington. Fans of Fruit might recognize some similarities between Joyce Sparks and Peter's rather difficult mother ("the craziest person in Sarnia"), who snoops through her son's drawers, intrudes in his private life, and stuffs him full of terrible food without apology. Aside from a peripheral school bully, Peter's mom is the closest thing Fruit has to a villain.
These same fans might pause to consider how noble it is of Francis to make an interfering mother the narrator of Natural Order. Lots of readers pay lip service to fiction as a means of empathizing with people different from themselves, but how many writers make a book-length commitment to seeing things from their villains' points of view? Really not that many.
Francis handles the challenge beautifully at first. Natural Order travels back and forth in time, from Joyce's late teens through her child-rearing years, and her widowed 70s, and finally into her late 80s, marking time at the nursing home in the same small town where she grew up. The initial scenes, of her youth in the Dairy Maid and her senescence in Chestnut Park, are rife with the kind of tart observations that made Fruit pop. Here's her nursing-home roommate's final illness:
"Then Margaret's liver shut down and she turned bronze. She lay in her bed, day after day, while a string of family members I'd never seen before came in and out of our room. They stood at her bedside, joisted fingers over their bellies, looking down at Margaret and shaking their heads as though this was one of the greatest tragedies they'd ever witnessed."
How's that for acerbic? And take it from one who knows: Francis's evocation of a teenaged girl's hopeless crush on a gay youth is perfect to the point of embarrassment.
As Joyce's story progresses, each phase of her life is defined by a relationship with a gay man: In her teens, it's a dashing co-worker, Freddy Pender, the abovementioned first crush; later on, it's her son, John; still later, it's Freddy's bereaved partner, Walter; and finally, it's Timothy, a volunteer in the nursing home.
And it's through these relationships that Joyce's otherness starts to get away from Francis. It's hard for Joyce to accept that people are gay, so she denies and obfuscates, and it becomes difficult to tell what she knows and what she doesn't, especially about her son. Fair enough.
But the gay characters are all more compelling than Joyce is. And in the book's middle third, as they begin, serially, to dominate the plot, her personality gradually devolves into a montage of rote rural-Can-Lit behaviours (she bakes too many date squares, and dwells at tedious length on her butterfly-themed kitchen). About a third of the way through the book, Joyce starts to feel less like a character and more like a patched-together duck blind from which to contemplate, wistfully, the men around her, whose more dramatic lives tend to take place offstage. It feels like there's another story Francis would have liked to tell, only Joyce's limited consciousness kept getting in the way.
Nonetheless, there's a lot to like about Natural Order. There are chapters-long blocks of good, sharp, vivid writing, and long sections, especially in the nursing home, in which Joyce is perfectly convincing. The story regains its focus in the final third, and when he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final 60 pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.
I read somewhere that the best cheerleaders practise with weights on their legs so that they'll be able to jump higher when they take them off. When Brian Francis the satirist has shrugged off the weight of this difficult narrator, I can only imagine what feats of buoyancy he'll accomplish.
Wendy Banks is a writer living in Toronto.