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Natural Order

by Brian Francis

Brian Francis, author of Canada Reads finalist Fruit (ECW Press), has written an ambitious second novel that dissects the disastrous relationship between a mother and her gay son. Despite an occasionally heavy-handed narrative style and moments of predictability, Natural Order is structurally complex, highly readable, and poses interesting questions about generational change and the divide between small-town and big city lifestyles.

As a teen in the 1950s, Joyce Sparks experiences heartbreak after developing a crush on her gay friend Freddy, who flees their hometown of Balsden, Ontario, in search of acceptance. Later in life, Joyce worries a similar lack of acceptance might befall her son John, who cherishes a doll and refuses to play sports with his dad, Charlie.

Joyce’s strident efforts to push John to deny his identity drive him away from her. He escapes to Toronto, where, in the early 1980s, he contracts an illness his mother cannot bring herself to name. His death – and the fact that it prevents any possibility of reconciliation – haunts Joyce as she grows into old age, eventually befriending a gay volunteer in her nursing home.

Tremendous regrets weigh Joyce down, something Francis captures well in the book’s first-person narration – perhaps too well. Joyce’s primary emotions are guilt, fear, disgust, and shame: many a paragraph is capped with maudlin, self-pitying lines such as: “Everything I ever did in life, I did wrong. Everything I touched, I destroyed.” We hear – repeatedly – what a horrible person Joyce believes she is. This makes sense given the novel’s trajectory, but quickly wears on the reader. Moreover, Francis frequently employs unsubtle foreshadowing, and key plot points can be predicted well in advance.

In the end, however, Francis manages to forge something more than a facile rehearsal of broad stereotypes. The novel transitions across multiple periods in Joyce’s long life in a manner that renders her understandable, if not easy to like. And the author’s skilful handling of both parents’ reactions to John’s early death is illuminating and moving.