In­cest novel tran­scends con­tro­versy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

Pene­lope is car­ry­ing on an af­fair with her could-have-been sis­ter-in-law, Me­d­ina. She’s also boink­ing, once a month, in ex­change for help with the mort­gage, her boarder, Catholic high-school chem­istry teacher Pops MacDougall.

Mean­while, half the male pop­u­la­tion of St. John’s, in­clud­ing her ado­les­cent son, lusts af­ter Pene­lope. And the allpow­er­ful Catholic Church, start­ing with the arch­bishop of New­found­land, wants Percy bap­tized and brought into the fold of mother church.

John­ston lam­poons the Catholic Church in New­found­land from first page to last.

The prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters — Percy, Pene­lope, Me­d­ina — are in­ca­pable of dis­card­ing the com­plex­ity of their lives for the sim­plic­ity of church doc­trine, which is what makes them heroic and in­ter­est­ing.

Dia­logue and con­ver­sa­tion pro­pel much of a story that’s in­tel­li­gent, funny and sexy. Words mat­ter in Pene­lope and Percy’s world, for good or ill, so they make them their tools for deal­ing with a cruel, cleric-driven ex­is­tence.

The novel has an oddly ahis­tor­i­cal feel about it.

While clearly set in mid-20th-cen­tury St. John’s, ex­cept for a few city streets in the area known lo­cally as the Mount, the out­side world and its events are ab­sent.

And apart from a sin­gle fleet­ing ref­er­ence to New­found­land hav­ing re­cently be­come Canada’s 10th prov­ince, events seem­ingly un­fold out­side of place and time.

Still, it’s a fully re­al­ized por­trayal of a work­ing-class com­mu­nity riven by op­pres­sive re­li­gios­ity, bru­tal cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment in its schools, neigh­bour­hood feuds and daily heart­breaks.

And sex is every­where, but less so sex­ual ac­tiv­ity than sex­ual mania, much of it re­volv­ing around Percy’s dis­turbingly al­lur­ing mother.

John­ston is such an adept sto­ry­teller that in the course of read­ing the novel you come close to con­don­ing the vi­o­la­tion it prom­ises. (But never ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers.)

At the same time mother and son are se­duc­ing each other, his writ­ing se­duces the reader into con­niv­ing at their dance to­ward the ul­ti­mate ta­boo.

John­ston’s pen­chant for no­to­ri­ety may do his fic­tion a dis­ser­vice this time round — con­tro­versy could eas­ily eclipse its proper con­sid­er­a­tion as a work of lit­er­a­ture.

And that would be a shame, be­cause, on its mer­its, this is a fine novel.

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