“I looked down at my worn-out pants, the toenails that peeked out from the fuzzy border of my slippers. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d painted them.
‘There’s nothing pretty about Mommy,’ I said.
Then my son carefully placed a small mound of crackling (bath) bubbles on my knee. ‘Now there is,’ he said, and I almost cried.”
Joyce Sparks, nee Conrad, never had a coming-out conversation with her son John. Freddy Pender never had that conversation with his mother either. Those two facts are at the heart of Brian Francis’ moving tribute or damnation of maternal love that is Natural Order. I certainly have no idea how many books I have read or even reviewed in my life but I know that the first number measures well into the thousands. There are only three that have made me cry: Black Beauty, The Great Gatsby, and now Natural Order. Yes it’s that good.
Freddy, who was Joyce’s first crush when they were of high school age and working in the same ice cream shop, and John are both gay. Interestingly, neither of the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ appear until nearly the end of the novel. On first reading, I wondered why Brian Francis had made that choice until the reason became obvious. Both Mrs. Pender and Joyce considered homosexuality to be shameful and a truth that must remain unspoken, and that which is unspoken must remain unwritten. When Joyce finally does state out loud that her son John was gay and died of AIDS not cancer (if you haven’t surmised that early on, do give up reading and take up bow hunting or something as a hobby)— she faints, Thud! on the floor in front of a roomful of guests.
Before delving deeper into the plot and characters, another impressive piece to this book is in its editing. It is cut like a perfectly executed film as its time frame shifts forwards and back from the early 1950s, when Joyce met Freddy, through her marriage to Charlie and John’s childhood, to the 1980s when John has left home, to the early ’90s when Joyce is an elderly widow yet still independent, to her final days as a wheelchair-bound elder in the comfortable prison we call a Seniors Home. The cuts are seamless and never leave the reader wondering, ‘Okay, so where are we?’ It is done so well that I doubt you’ll notice how well it is done.
I mentioned the Seniors Home. No one— and I sincerely mean no one— has so accurately described that existence as well as Brian Francis. People who have lived six, seven, eight decades making independent decisions but have now suffered the fate of living beyond their health and/or wealth are now assumed to have lost all ability to think for themselves. An example:
‘You’re looking well today, Mrs. Sparks,’ I’m told. It’s the Filipina woman. I forget her name and I can’t read her badge. She’s just a wisp of a thing, a pink peppermint stick in her uniform. ‘How are you feeling?’
My neck hurts,’ I say, even though it’s no better or worse than usual. ‘My hands too.’
‘Mmm-hmm,’ Filipina woman says, tipping the contents of the tiny white cup into my palm. She hands me a glass of apple juice with a straw bent like an elbow. I could have told her I was pregnant and she would’ve asked me if I wanted ice in my glass.
And that’s the thing about Joyce. Although she covers up the truth of John’s life and death, although she denies the truth about Freddy, the baton-twirling drum major in a white suit leading the parade through the fictional city of Balsden, although her secrecy deliberately makes a wedge between John and Charlie… we like her. All she really wants to do is protect her son, as she tells us many, many times. How can that be dishonourable?
Well, it certainly can, as elaborated by Mrs. Pender vis-à-vis her son Freddy. This may be a Spoiler Alert, but here again I think you’ll guess it anyway and it won’t spoil your appreciation of Natural Order. Freddy’s Mom kills him off metaphorically. She pronounces him dead— a suicide— jumping off a cruise ship— rather than accept any more knowing questions from women with knowing smiles.
I do think, despite all the dispensed praise, that there is one flaw to the novel. It’s not so much how like Mrs. Pender our Joyce becomes. Joyce very closely parallels the life of this woman she is appalled by on first meeting, just lagging one generation behind. But I do think that at some point readers deserve the pay-off of Joyce’s ‘Oh my God, I am Her!’ moment that never comes. The final examination and appreciation of Joyce’s character can only come with that moment. But… maybe Francis is just being honest. Do real people actually have moments of self-discovery? And if so, how many?
I mentioned tears early on, and there is a chance you might be curious as to what made me break out the tissues. John and I share an experience. John was suffering an elementary school beating by ignorant boys for his nature; I narrowly avoided one because of my defence of liberal politics (I was a precocious child). Both of us had those fights broken up by our mothers. Both of us found that act of honest, devout protection left us diminished in the eyes of our peers. Joyce reflects:
If I hadn’t left the house that afternoon, if I hadn’t stumbled on that scene, if I hadn’t heard him being called those names or hovered over him as he lay bleeding on the ground, John would’ve been able to preserve some scrap of dignity. The boys would’ve bored of him. They would’ve gone on to other targets. He would’ve eventually gotten up. He would’ve made his way home on his own that day. He’d have thought up a story to explain things. That he’d fallen. That he’d stepped in to help another boy. Anything but the truth.
I would’ve believed him with all my heart.
Brian Francis’ previous book Fruit was nominated for a raft of book awards and landed him on emerging author lists. I think he is a gifted author, particularly in the loving—yes that is the word— way he gives life to each character: Joyce’s neighbour the elderly Mr. Sparrow, Joyce’s spinster friend (was she gay?) Fern, Freddy’s lover Walter. Canada is blessed with a golden generation of young authors who have claimed the torch passed from Richler, Davies, and the rest. Along with Dan Vyleta, Wayne Johnston, Cynthia Holz and several others, our literary heritage is much like Ireland’s: greatness beyond the expectations of a small population.
Doubleday| 384 pages | $29.95 | cloth | ISBN #978-0385671538