Perfect by Rachel Joyce

25th Jul 2013

Perfect, Rachel Joyce’s follow-up to her Booker-longlisted début The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is, we are told, a novel ‘about misunderstandings, the small acts of kindness that make the difference and the redemptive nature of time.’

It isn’t. Not really. Yes, all those elements feature, but Perfect feels primarily like a novel about how lives can go completely tits up on the shallowest of gradients.

Perfect tells two gradually merging stories – the first is about Byron, whose narrative is set in 1972 and begins with him explaining that his best friend James, ‘the cleverest boy Byron knew’, had said that two seconds were about to be added on to time, a fact that throws Byron into a pit of existential dread.

a novel about how lives can go completely tits up on the shallowest of gradientsByron’s mother Diana is the central, ‘perfect’ figure in Byron’s life, and there is a supporting cast of characters including Byron’s father Seymour, James’s mother Andrea and The Mothers, who explain back stories and serve to remind us some of 1972’s more unpleasant societal attitudes.

The second, modern, story is about Jim, a middle-aged man with explicit mental health problems, who lives alone in a van, has no family and works at the local supermarket cafe.

It’s impossible to go into the plot without giving away spoilers, but suffice to say a life-shattering event occurs early on, the veneer cracks and Byron’s superficially perfect life with his mother, who dresses to please her husband and spends her life of leisure cleaning the house, starts to collapse.

Then Byron’s story goes backwards and Jim’s forwards until they meet in the aftermath of The Event and it all makes sense. The minor twists are effective (one in particular had me rooting back through the novel and re-evaluating my assumptions); the major twist, when it comes, is not entirely surprising but it is handled confidently.

There are glimmers of light and happiness, particularly within Jim’s friendship with his colleague Eileen and the redemptive, tender ending, but Perfect is only sporadically a life-affirming book.

Jim recalls his periods in mental institutions where residents are routinely drugged, and wear each other’s pyjamas because the staff don’t think personal possessions matter to the mad (this, incidentally, is not fiction – Joyce’s treatment of 1970s and 80s mental health care is depressingly accurate).

The introduction of a woman called Beverley heralds a sinister story arc, James has feelings towards Diana that are not entirely healthy, and the progressions of the main characters as they stagger towards an inevitable doom are bordering on scary.

It’s testament to Rachel Joyce’s linguistic skill, then, that she manages to make it feel like a beautiful book. She is a master of innocuous, throw-away sentences that convey more about a character than a whole paragraph can in a lesser writer’s hand, and she invariably produces well-crafted characters whose voices and personalities are expertly nuanced. No cardboard cut-out angels or villains here.

In some passages the metaphors and similes are so packed in that the writing feels a bit like a school essay by a student who’s just learned how to use metaphors and similes, but when Joyce’s descriptive powers are on fire the scenes she creates are visual and poetic.

There are niggles. Diana’s back story doesn’t emerge as vividly as it could, and Beverley, whose storyline is one of the novel’s best, is more or less left hanging.

You might also want to brush up on your French if you haven’t used it in a while; to convey Byron and James’s statuses as outsiders Joyce has them regularly drop French into conversation, though thankfully the phrases are brief and rudimentary.

Still, these negatives only fleetingly detract from a story that’s cleverly paced and absorbing. Joyce has successfully overcome the ‘difficult second novel’ hurdle, and it will be interesting to see what she does next.

Perfect was published by Doubleday on 4th July.