Perfect is Rachel Joyce’s second novel. Her first was 2012’s celebrated The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in which a pensioner walks across England in order to say goodbye to a dying friend. This unique debuted demonstrated Joyce’s ability to combine the sadness of life with the hope and joy.
Perfect is told from the perspective of two different characters in two different time periods. The first is June 1972. Eleven year old Byron, a middle class child who spends his time studying for exams and discussing the meaning of life with his Times reading friend James. Byron however is consumed by fear. This is the year when two extra seconds are going to be added at the end of the month so as to bring the clock back in line with the movement of the Earth. Whereas two seconds would pass most people by, Byron is acutely aware that two seconds is all that it takes for something monumental to happen. “Two seconds are huge,” he tells his mother Diana. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening… It’s very dangerous.” And indeed Byron is right as the adding of the two seconds triggers a change in his life and that of his family that ripple down the months and years that follow. This happens during an ordinary drive to school. Running late Diana takes a short cut through a sink estate. It is here that Byron sees his watch go back as the two extra seconds are added to time. For Byron, young and confused, were it not for this small change, this brief moment in time, his life would have continued as easily as before. As is happens Diana has made a mistake. One which she is unaware of. Turning to his intellectual best friend James they come up with a plan, Operation Perfect, to protect her.
Byron lives with his younger sister Lucy and his seemingly perfect mother Diana. His father only comes home at weekends and with him comes a dark change in atmosphere as everything becomes more constrained. The children wait to have their mother back come Monday morning. Diana is the central figure in Byron’s life. He sees her in all of her different guises. The eyelash fluttering young woman speaking to his father over the phone, the nervous housewife straining to meet her husband’s expectations at weekends and the smooth well-coiffed Jaguar driving lady who lunches; meeting up regularly with the other mothers (whose clique seems more like a witch’s coven). However at home with the children she seems to be close to her real self. That is until two new figures come into their lives. As Diana develops a friendship with local woman Beverly from the estate she starts to reveal a part of herself that she has kept under lock and key. Experiencing the effects of the accident that pulled them together she to start to unravel at the seams; at one point whisking the children away on an impromptu trip to the seaside where watching the dancers makes her cry. Byron becomes used to the endless sound of ice clinking in her glass.
The second plot line focuses on middle aged Jim. Jim is a mystery and how his story relates to the young Byron’s is one of the novels greatest secrets and surprises. At first little is known about him except that he has experienced difficulties in his past. He has been left with a stammer that separates him from those around him. This is explained early on: “the doctor prescribed electroconvulsive therapy. It brought on a stammer and later a tingling in his fingers that even now Jim still feels”. Over time his story slowly emerges. He lives in a camper van on the edge of a new housing estate and works at a supermarket café, he is isolated and avoids others wherever possible however as he begins to interact with his colleagues kindness and hope start to imbue the novel. A chance happening, almost a rerun of the earlier accident that drove Byron’s world apart, instead starts to bring the world closer to Jim until in time he can face the realities of his past.
Jim and particularly Diana are fascinating, beautifully drawn characters. As a child Byron looks to Diana to make sense of the world and keep him safe. As this starts to fall apart in a way he starts to lose his mother. “So this was how it felt to lose a parent. It was natural to be unhappy like that. But to discover his mother was also unhappy in a way that he sometimes was, because something to which he couldn’t even give a name was not right – that had not occurred to him before”. Diana had always struggled to portray herself as the ideal housewife and mother and there is something inherently sad about the way in which she lives her life, unable to be fully herself. There is also a sadness in Jim who although both likeable and warm struggles to fit into the world around him. The effects of his obsessive compulsive disorder and the ECT that he received are sensitively portrayed. Joyce is too clever and complex a writer to allow Jim to be reduced to his compulsions. He remains at all times a full and gentle character. Both Jim and Diana are drawn out of themselves by the unlikely friendships that they develop. Their plotlines sometimes mirror each other however the way in which Byron and Jim are related remains a mystery until the end.
Class and identity are defining features in this charming, emotionally involving novel by Rachel Joyce. The reader follows as both Byron and Jim struggle to make sense of the world around them, finding themselves not quite fitting in. The novel begins with two extra seconds being added to time. The irrevocable consequences of this small moment in time play themselves out through the novel in an often heart wrenching manner. As Perfect comes to a close, Joyce gives us hope. Delicate and at risk, but still it lives. This novel is tender and delicate; unashamedly moving and a joy to read.
Nominated for Dublin Literary Award 2015
Rachel Joyce, Perfect (Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, London, 2013). ISBN 9780241964729. 361pp., Hardback.