Natural Order by Brian Francis
Before writing anything at all about Natural Order by Brian Francis I thought for a long time about how forthcoming I wanted to be about the content of, and my own reaction to, this novel. And, I decided I have to be straightforward and discuss the content without any concern about whether or not anyone is offended – because I hope that no one is.
Natural Order is a novel about an elderly woman, Joyce Sparks, 86 years of age, now living in an old age home. Joyce is thinking about her life and her present situation. We meet a younger Joyce, and through her memories we share the life she lived as a teenager, a young mother, older mother, and then an independent 72 year old.
As a teenager Joyce’s first love is a boy she works with at a soda fountain – Freddy. They go to movies together and Joyce feels a growing attraction – not noticing that Freddy is simply enjoying her company. In the 1950’s who knew about gay – most girls certainly didn’t and as one gay male friend of mine said, he hardly knew either. This reader, now more enlightened than I was at one time, knew immediately that Freddy was not the kind of guy to be attracted to girls.
When we meet Joyce as a young mother we witness her concern about the femininity of her son, John – even as a little boy he resisted the rough and ready activities of the other boys. Joyce attempts to hide her dawning knowledge from her husband, believing he would find her son’s homosexuality unacceptable. She will regret this for the rest of her life.
I thought about my own family’s experiences – a cousin who married disastrously when he was young, and then found love and companionship with another man after leaving his marriage. When both men died within a few years of each other, almost 20 years ago, our family was shocked and saddened. They had openly, together, been part of our lives, and yet at the memorial service for our cousin, his mother would not allow there to be any mention of the man he had made a home with – the most important person in his life. Forgivable, but a sad disservice to herself and her son.
This is almost exactly the struggle that Joyce Sparks lives with - heartbreaking for all involved – and such an unnecessary barrier to an open and happy relationship between parents and children. When I said to my husband that I find it hard to believe, in this day and age, that this is still reality, he said I was naive. And perhaps I am. But what parent would not want their child as part of their life no matter who their choice of a life partner? What a tragedy for all concerned.
There is a whole lot more to this story than the issue of Freddy and John’s sexuality. There is Joyce’s relationship with her sister, and her friends and neighbours. Joyce is a delightfully cranky old lady, with a wonderfully droll sense of humour. It is her humourous observances – or more accurately Brian Francis’ deadpan humour - that gives us some comic relief just when it is most needed. I found myself often laughing out loud. And, then there were times I found myself in tears. “I’m not convinced that things happen for a reason”, muses Joyce, in her old age. In her final hours, she thinks, “you can only deal with something with whatever means you have at a particular moment.” How true, and how wise an observance from a young writer.
Natural Order is a novel that I think deserves attention – Brian Francis writes with surprising honesty and skill. Of the new releases I’ve read this fall this is my favourite so far.