There’s nobody like your mother. And for queer men and their moms, there’s something especially intense about that parent/child relationship. This strained connection, or disconnection, is what Brian Francis seeks to explore in his sophomore novel, Natural Order. In this at once sad and uplifting story, Francis inhabits the mind of an elderly woman episodically remembering her life and coping with her son’s sexuality and early death.
“Moms and gay sons tend to have a tough relationship. She’s never going to lose her son to another woman, but what I’ve realized is how insecure parents are when their kids deviate from the norm in some way,” Francis reflects. “They’re always afraid of being judged.”
This is an understatement when it comes to Joyce Sparks, the narrator whose memories slowly reveal a fraught experience of motherhood. Thinking back, from her room in a retirement home, a picture comes together of a small-town mother who tries so hard to protect her son John from the hostile gaze of society that she instead pushes him away forever. By the time an adult John is dying in a hospital bed in Toronto, it’s too late for Joyce to reconcile with her son and her resentful husband.
Left in her old age to feed on her own issues surrounding shame and regret, a series of events echoing her relationship with John leads her, eventually, to confront her own mistakes. As Joyce and her few friends encounter more gay men in their lives and learn to talk about sexuality, she begins to negotiate her own failures.
“Some old people use that excuse of privacy to sort of sweep things under the carpet that they don’t want to talk about,” says Francis, who spent time volunteering in retirement homes and reading about parents coping with death to prepare to write the book.
Indeed, Joyce constantly misrepresents, or misunderstands, her own embarrassment as a concern for protecting John’s right to discretion. “People fall into the trap of labelling things as private as a way of mislabelling shame,” says Francis.
But the novel is smart enough to complicate Joyce’s dilemmas by addressing not just the constraints of small-town society in the ’50s and ’60s, but also the issues facing seniors today. In a quietly political gesture, Francis makes a compelling commentary on the way seniors are treated in our society.
At one point, Joyce sits alone at a diner and observes, “We’re everywhere it seems. Seniors […] We clog up lines […] Ask if the question can be repeated. What nuisances we are.”
This combination of bitterness and degradation only worsens as she becomes increasingly cut off from the rest of the world just as she becomes ready to talk about her son.
“No one’s opening the door for her to talk about these things, no one asks her. She’s never had a chance to talk about it,” Francis points out.
Natural Order is really a coming-out story, but not in a typically adolescent setting — Francis’s best-selling first book, Fruit, is a bit more of that. Instead, the new novel is about how a woman struggling to talk about her lost son’s identity has fewer and fewer opportunities to do so as she ages.
“I was nervous I might fatigue a queer reader, who’d feel like, ‘I’ve read this. I know she won’t accept me, so why hang in there?” Francis admits. “Hopefully they stick it out until the end.”
All told, the book is as much about Joyce belatedly coming to accept her son as it is about the reader coming to forgive her for her good intentions, however misdirected. And as hard as it can be for a mother to accept her child’s queerness, it may be just as important for queers to do the same for Mom.