Book review: Perfect

By Michael Larsen

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British writer Rachel Joyce.
British writer Rachel Joyce.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce
(Doubleday $36.99)

Diana Hemmings is a beautiful but troubled mother. Having been relocated to a village in the Gloucester moors by a controlling husband, she does her best to fit in with the other moneyed mums of Cranham Village. On the surface, she does a good job of it: son Byron is a bit peculiar and a touch fat, but he's doing well with his scholarship exams at Winston House, even if his only real friend is the fiercely bright but OCD-leaning James.

Byron is good enough to his younger sister Lucy, and, like his mother, is fearful of his father's weekend visits, when Seymour commutes home from the city to dominate their country pile with his brooding presence.

There's so much underlying tension from the outset in this wonderful second novel from the already-shortlisted Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry) that you know it's not going to take much for something to shatter the fragile masquerade that is these people's lives. Stuck in traffic, frustrated, Diana chooses to cut through the impoverished Digby Rd where, in her highly strung state, she knocks a small girl off her bike, unleashing a tidal wave of uncontrollable events that alter everyone's lives forever.

Or does she? Because according to Byron, acting on information from the infallible James (plus it was in The Times!) the actual moment of impact happens when the powers that be are adding two "leap seconds" to the year. Time stands still.

"Byron glanced at his watch and then he froze. The second hand was moving backwards. His voiced sliced at his throat and he realised it was a scream."

This brilliant touch moves the event from a novelistic device in the light of Sherman McCoy's ill-advised Harlem detour in Bonfire Of The Vanities to something far cleverer.

And sinister. Diana denies all knowledge, James and Byron need to make things "perfect" again. Which eventually means revisiting the scene of the crime and unleashing the manipulative powers of the little girl's mother, Beverley.

This all happens in the stifling summer of 1972, and is recounted, naturally, in the past tense. In the present (tense), and the deepest winter, we encounter Jim, living in Cranham Village and working as a table cleaner at the local mall cafe. Jim was once a recurring resident of Besley Hill asylum, driven to instability by events 40 years prior in the village that involved his best friend. Hmmm... To cope, Jim engages in a series of rituals at the extreme end of the OCD continuum and is shuffling to a life of nothing when the fiery Eileen turns up at the cafe and sees through his hopelessness to the core of the human within.

Joyce deftly takes these dual plots and flings us back and forth, slowly delivering revelations, building the tension and taking us toward a horror that we really would like to avoid. But she is a smiling assassin, and while we experience, like Byron, loss along the way, it's an often witty, colourful ride. The slow train wreck that is Diana is exquisitely wrought, as she seems to lose the plot and then "[snaps] back into being a mother ... like an umbrella shooting into the right shape."

Joyce's grasp of unusual metaphor ensures Perfect is terrifically told. Byron's teacher studies "the sea of small heads as if deciding which one to eat"; Byron's father's jackets and shirts line up "on wooden hangers like headless versions" of the fearsome Seymour.

The burgeoning relationship between Beverley, who looks "as if she survived on scraps of things", and Diana unfolds brilliantly. Ironically, while it initially looks as if Diana has potentially destroyed the lives of Beverley and her family through the accident, Beverley's deliberate exploitation of the situation contributes hugely to the ultimate destruction of Diana herself.

Who needs who the most? Who's really being taken advantage of here?

Not everything ends well, and not everything survives the weight of the plot - the present day content drifts a little and while the descriptions of the moors and the contrasting seasons is made much of, often beautifully, a very timely rainstorm injects a note of authorial convenience into an otherwise fiercely authentic tale.

This is literary fiction in the style of Kate Atkinson's more considered works: original, creative, superbly structured and beautifully delivered without being onerous. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, there's a rather delicious twist in the tail of this tender tale. Thoroughly enjoyable, I highly recommend it.

- NZ Herald

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