Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

There are a number of British writers -- Penelope Lively, Mark Haddon, and Tessa Hadley come to mind -- whose prose embodies what I think of as an essential Englishness. Their style is clear, brisk, sometimes verging on no nonsense, but at the same time deeply empathetic to the breadth of human emotion and individual foibles. What I especially relish is the ability these writers often display of leavening tragedy with humor, and humor with emotional veracity.

Typically, though not always, their fiction is focused on ordinary people, troubled by ordinary troubles. Despite the seemingly small scale of these stories, they are told with the psychological acuity and social insight that result in powerfully affecting fiction. With her new novel, Perfect, published in the US today, Rachel Joyce, cements her place as a member of this club.

Her debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was smartly written, entertaining and touching. There was an element of whimsy to Harold's abrupt quest, but there was an underlying sadness and loss that marked Harold's journey and in Perfect that darker tone comes to the fore.

Two narratives, separated by forty years unfold in alternating chapters. Introduced first is the tale of Byron Hemmings, who as an eleven year old school boy in 1972 is consumed by worry that two seconds are to be added to the clock to adjust for it being a leap year. How can two second suddenly exist when they didn't exist before? How and when will the two seconds be inserted? As Byron says, "Two seconds are huge. It's the difference between something happening and something not happening." That something does happen one morning in late June when nothing seems to go right, and by the end of the summer Bryon's world is irrevocably altered.

With the help of his friend James, who was the source of the information about the change in time, Byron spends the summer trying undo the consequences of that morning, but the more they meddle, the more they lose control. Small ripples of upheaval become waves that quickly swamp the fragile structure that was Byron's family. Joyce beautifully captures Byron's dawning awareness of, and anxiety about, the deep fractures in the facade of his idyllic life. As events snowball over the summer holidays he begins to see how different his mother is from those of his school friends and how hard it is for her to maintain the illusion his largely absent, but controlling and angry, father demands. As she falls apart he scrambles ever more frantically to shore things up. The reader knows, though Byron does not, the disaster that is brewing was inevitable and despite his love for his mother, and his innate decency, Byron is doomed to failure.

Alongside the story of what happens to Byron and James, we are introduced to Jim, a former mental patient living in the same neighborhood, in the present day. Having spent much of his life institutionalized Jim struggles to make his way in the world. He only just manages to hold down his job at the local supermarket while spending his evenings in compulsive rituals that he believes will keep him safe. Slowly, as Christmas approaches, Jim is thrown into ever closer contact with his co-workers as well as taking the first tentative steps towards finding love. As Byron's world closes in around him, Jim's begins to open up.

While Joyce takes pain to create an aura of mystery about the connection between the two narratives, it will be clear to most readers very early in the novel how the threads are woven together. Her hints and misdirections can feel theatrical and heavy-handed, but are probably a consequence of her years as an actress and radio playwright.

She succeeds far better at using the physical environment to create tension and emotional context. Weather and scenery are brilliantly used underscore the action and characters' states of mind. The physical environment is also used to comment a shift in the English class structure in the years since 1972 -- council estates are renovated, while old manors are demolished to make way for new housing developments. In the end, I was left wondering if the particular dynamics of Byron's tragedy could unfold in the modern world. I suspect this is something Rachel Joyce would like us to think about as well.

If you've read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry you will know that Rachel Joyce is, ultimately, an optimist, and that quality is reasserted in the conclusion of Perfect. There is hope for Jim and his newly reborn life -- look for the crocuses -- and it is to Joyce's credit that I felt that it was his due.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley. The review reflects my own opinion and all my own typos.

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