From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, comes an at-times dark and gothic, and at other times warm-hearted tale about loneliness, protection and social class.
An unlikely hero, the eleven-year old, odd boy out, Byron Hemmings is anxious. He is anxious because, according to his best friend, James, two seconds have been added to time. Byron saw them being added, and those two seconds have changed everything. As he distracts his mother, Diana, by showing her the altered time on his watch, she, unknowingly, knocks a young girl off her bike with her Jaguar.
In a parallel story, Jim clears tables in a supermarket café by day, and returns to his caravan at night, where he cares for his plants. After years of being institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, undergoing extensive electroconvulsive (shock) therapy, Jim is a shadow of his former self, with few remaining memories, and even fewer social skills. As he tries to find his way in a world he doesn’t really understand (and that doesn’t understand him), he finds an unlikely friend in his outspoken colleague, Eileen.
It is 1972, and Joyce’s bottling of the era is, well, perfect. Her descriptions of the clothing, of the matching handbags, of the paper-thin contentment of Diana, Byron’s mother, captures a moment in time when many women were still struggling to maintain the “right” image for their husbands, were still struggling to exist independently and in their own right because they were expected only to bear the burden of parenthood. While she is not the protagonist, Diana is the stories linchpin; she is at the root of the story’s events, and is its heroine, or rather, damsel in distress. She is fundamental to drawing the reader’s empathy, and I did, truly, feel for her, touched by her loneliness, but also elevated by her bucking of the system.
Diana is not alone in drawing in readers. All of Perfect’s characters, and their relationships, are interesting and enticing. James, with his rituals that keep him safe, and his incredible knowledge had me remembering a little boy I once knew who I always thought might have grown up just like that. The endearing friendship between him and Byron broke my heart a little as I spared a thought for the difficulties of being different. It also gave my heart wings to witness their innocence, and delight in their perceptions of the world (such as their decision to speak French when English was too dull). But then, I felt the same for Jim, both sad and protective of him as he bears the brunt of societal stigmatism, but also uplifted by his views, his naivety. The characters in this book are alive, tangible, and credible – idiosyncrasies and all – and they felt like they were born straight from the author’s heart.
Also very relevant to the era, and a theme of Perfect, is class discrepancy. Byron attends Winston House School, a private school, even though there is a closer public school – but that’s where the children from the council estate on Digby Road go, so Byron can’t go there. Jeannie and her mother live on the council estate, and much of the middle-class Diana’s amends-making is motivated by a sense of guilt for being rich, for having a life with “new” money, and with grounds and sun-loungers and cocktails.
It took me a little time to get used to the parallel threads, but once I did, in fact, even before I did, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Joyce slowly weaves together past and present until we are looking at a sad but beautiful tapestry. Perfect is a compelling read about restrictions, burdens, and stigma, and is an altogether wonderfully written book.