Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Natural Order

Natural Order is my favourite book of 2011. Hands down. Go read it. Now.

Do you guys remember the book Fruit?  It's about a boy who's nipples start talking to him one day and it was the runner up in the 2009 edition of Canada Reads.  Fruit is written by Brian Francis and, though I've never read it, I may have to after reading Francis' Natural Order.

First, a note about the author: Brian Francis is a male (which may be obvious from the name, but pseudonyms and such can throw you for a loop), he's gay and I believe he lives in Toronto.  Why is this important?  Because he has made the narrator of Natural Order a small-town woman in her 80s named Joyce Sparks - and he does a fantastic job telling the story in her voice.

The story centres on Joyce and various stages of her life: as a teenager, as a wife and mother, as a widow living on her own and as an octogenarian in a nursing home nearing the end of her life. As Joyce narrated through her life, my emotions towards her changed. At times I liked her, hated her, sympathized with her, questioned her, and wanted to scream, "Just talk to him!". She's a frustrating character and comes across as both protagonist and antagonist simply by being herself.

As a teenager, Joyce fell in love with Freddy Pender, despite rumours that he was "fruity". When Freddy left his small-town life for an acting career, Joyce married Charlie Sparks and had a son named John, though she never stopped thinking of Freddy and would even buy the tabloids for a glimpse of him in his new life. Joyce eventually learns that Freddy has committed suicide by jumping from a cruise ship and is told by Freddy's mother that a mother always knows when something isn't right with her son.

These allusions to Freddy's homosexuality weigh on Joyce as she sees her beloved son drawn to dolls and kitchen sets rather than trucks and sports. Desperate to protect her son, Joyce begins making choices and keeping secrets from her husband, family and friends, trying to ensure John doesn't end up like Freddy. But her choices and secrets do have a devastating effect on her and her loved ones.

Homophobia is always simmering beneath the surface in this book and many would be appalled that people could think and feel this way towards homosexuals. However, I'm from a small town where homophobia also simmers and sometimes boils over and reading about Joyce in her small town and the attitudes people had towards gays hit close to home. At times it felt like Joyce was talking about people I knew and still know, people who still think this way.

Brian Francis is a wonderful writer and he takes the reader between the various times in Joyce's life easily, even when it's one paragraph to the next. Francis has Joyce hinting at what happened next in the past before taking the reader back to the present and Joyce's current struggles with her choices. These were lovely little cliffhangers that kept me reading far later into the night than I should have.

Despite her flaws, though, Joyce makes her decisions out of love and Francis never makes us think she's a hateful person. Confused, scared, proud, even devious, but never hateful. She does what she thinks is right, even if the reader knows it's so wrong and who wouldn't do what they think is right for someone they love?

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