“It’s beautiful,” I said, even though it wasn’t my style. It was cut glass and silver. Something a movie star might wear. Is this what my boy thought of me? I wondered as he fastened it around my neck. He called me Elizabeth Taylor and I laughed and laughed. I wore that necklace throughout the rest of the day. In spite of its garishness, I was surprised by how I felt: glamourous, special. I was out of my element amidst my kitchen cupboards and self-hemmed curtains. I almost believed in a version of myself that had long since faded away.
--From Natural Order by Brian Francis
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. When Freddy led the homecoming parade down the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited love.
Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in New York, 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. She concealed the mounting signs that John was not a “normal” boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.
News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship. “A mother always knows when something isn’t right with her son,” was Mrs. Pender’s steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects, cryptically alleging that Freddy’s homosexuality had led to his destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John’s doll if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable loss.
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. Then a young nursing home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce’s life after all?
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
READ AN EXCERPT
The buzzers bleat in the hallway like robot sheep. We keep our strings close to us so they...
1. The phrase “natural order” is used more than once in the narrative, by different characters, with different meanings. Discuss the layered meanings of the title.
2. The novel begins with John’s obituary. Did it accurately convey the circumstances around his death, and life? Considering it must...
—The Globe and Mail
“Natural Order is structurally complex, highly readable, and poses interesting questions about generational change and the divide between small-town and big city lifestyles. . . . Illuminating and moving.”
—Quill & Quire
“A remarkably honest and uniquely Canadian book. . . . and an emotional story skillfully drawn.”
—Fashion (Zoe Whittall)
“(Brian Francis’s) prose kept reminding me of Alice Munro, not only in its unfussy precision, but in its constant refusal of easy sentimentality. . . . Very affecting.”
—National Post (Scott MacDonald)
“Good, sharp, vivid writing . . . when he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final 60 pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.”
—The Globe and Mail
“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. . . . 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.”
“Wonderful.... Francis nails every detail of a small-town mother’s love.”
—Kathleen Winter, author of Annabel
“Beautifully written, as affecting as it is convincing. At once funny, touching and fearless, the delicate strands woven between mothers and sons are powerful.”
—Anthony De Sa, author of Barnacle Love
“We need more books like this one: alive with a singular pulse, cheeky, honest, achingly tender. This book will syncopate your heart. Brian Francis reminds us to live, and love, bravely. I am still catching my breath.”
—Jessica Grant, author of Come, Thou Tortoise
“An extraordinary read. Francis is a master at creating vivid characters. Joyce Sparks is unforgettable. Her touching life story will leave you both hopeful and wiser.”
—Neil Smith, author of Bang Crunch
“In Natural Order, Brian Francis gets it all—the sharp, to-the-bone wit of people with no time left to waste, plus compassion for difficult characters who, out of love, misunderstanding and fear, have made each other’s lives harder to bear. A feat of humane literary empathy.”
—Joan Barfoot, author of Exit Lines
"Honest, tender and mesmerizing, Brian Francis' Natural Order is a must-read."
—Ami McKay, author of The Birth House
“I was much moved by Natural Order.... Here is a writer of quality, a storyteller with a deep sensitivity that challenges and enriches his readers."
—Wayson Choy, author of Not Yet
From the Hardcover edition.