by Brian Francis
Description (from the publisher)
Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small community of Balsden, Ontario. “There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find your own backyard,” her mother used to say, and Joyce has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the nurses.
This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a girl, she’d allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was “fruity,” Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his flamboyant ways. Years later, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, she was growing increasingly alarmed about John’s preference for dolls and kitchen sets.
Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be.
Voiced by an unforgettable and heartbreakingly flawed narrator, Natural Order is a masterpiece of empathy, a wry and tender depiction of the end-of-life remembrances and reconciliations that one might undertake when there is nothing more to lose, and no time to waste.
I usually approach novels set up as "remembrances of things past" with high caution. There's a certain sameness to the form I find off-putting, as the elderly protagonist looks back at the mistakes in life and either a) bemoans cruel fate, or b) comes to terms with the vagaries of existence. Perhaps it's because I was forced (yes, forced!) to read Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel in school (twice!) well before I was primed to appreciate it that I dislike the subgenre so fervently. I've never gone back to Laurence's book, and despite its sterling reputation, I stand by my teenage opinion that it's about an old woman who was mean to everyone, and then died, and I was glad of it. (Next week; my issues with Pride and Prejudice: hidden feminist classic, or claptrap as boring as a sack of doilies?)
Nevertheless, I dive into the pages of Brian Francis' follow-up to his best-seller Fruit, and find myself quickly and completely under his spell. Natural Order is not a game-changer, but it is a subtle portrait of a woman who could not help herself but try to do what she thought was right even when the outcome was hurtful. Joyce is not a selfish person in most respects, but her selfish refusal to see what her son actually is leads to family dysfunction and eventual unhappiness. Francis may stumble occasionally with some plot contrivances, but his overall sense of the character is riveting, and his refusal to go maudlin is to be congratulated. I truly enjoyed Fruit, but Natural Order is of a new level altogether, far more layered and affecting, the blossoming of a truly fine author.
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