4.5 stars,  literary fiction

Review: ‘Perfect’ by Rachel Joyce

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
In 1972, two seconds were added to time. It was in order to balance clock time with the movement of the earth. Byron Hemming knew this because James Lowe had told him and James was the cleverest boy at school. But how could time change? The steady movement of hands around a clock was as certain as their golden futures.
Then Byron’s mother, late for the school run, makes a devastating mistake. Byron’s perfect world is shattered. Were those two extra seconds to blame? Can what follows ever be set right?
The end of the year is closing in and I’m still super behind on reviews so I’m now frantically scrabbling back through my recently read books list to pick out my favourites and make sure they get proper attention before I go off merrily into 2014 and forget all about them. It’s been a good few months in reading terms so there are plenty of fantastic books to choose from. Perfect easily made the cut.
The story follows Byron in the lead up to and wake of the addition of two seconds. At first, I was convinced that as well as obviously highlighting the pursuit of perfection, this was also about the tragedy of coincidence. Two seconds earlier (or “two seconds less”, I suppose, depending upon how you look at it) and Byron’s mother might not have made the mistake that brought Beverley, local Council estate resident, crashing into their lives, bringing turmoil with her. And it is about those things but it’s also about class, growing up and mental illness.
Byron and his mother are “upper class”. I was worried at first that tackling class issues would make the book clumsy but using Byron as the narrator actually works. Writing a novel from the perspective of a child is a tricky business. A lot of the time you end up either with a child that occasionally speaks with the voice of an adult or a story that is stunted by being limited to the experiences and perceptions of a young person. I can only think of Room by Emma Donoghue (review here) off the top of my head where the device really added something to the story. With Perfect, Joyce manages to strike just the right balance between childish naivety and observation so that it’s painfully obvious to readers that his mother is struggling to maintain the “perfect” veneer that she has worked so hard to establish and that she is being mercilessly manipulated by her new “friend” Beverley. Byron doesn’t pick up on the nuances of behaviour and language that suggest one class rather than another but his accurate observations make understanding the other characters more than he does easy. There were one or two moments where I was a little annoyed by everybody’s blindness but they were few and far between and I wouldn’t say that it spoilt much for me. I was more or less happy to put their ignorance down to wilful head-turning to avoid noticing the dark spot on their otherwise perfect lives, though, and was enjoying the juxtaposition of Byron’s elegant, repressed mother and the brassy, oh-so working class Beverley as seen through the eyes of a sensitive child too much to really care.

As always with a split narrative, I preferred one strand to the other. That isn’t to say that one was stronger than the other; just that, for me, the stand out chapters were Jim’s. They were strengthened by the overall story but I could have read a book just about Jim. Jim has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and sees everything against the backdrop of his routine. The characters in Perfect feel so alive and have such depth that they’re the kind of characters that you half believe might actually be walking around somewhere. If I could track Jim down and help him, I would. What is really powerful is how Joyce subtly weaves in some devastating indictments on mental health care in the 1970s. Jim is fragile and vulnerable after spending years within various facilities, suffering through treatments that it’s hard to believe were ever thought to be helpful, before being reintegrated into society when his hospital was closed. It does a brilliant job of really highlighting how disorientating that must have been for so many people, particularly those that didn’t have anyone else to turn to for support, and how woefully poor care for those genuinely suffering from debilitating conditions was even in relatively recent times.
But even while I really liked the plot and ideas, it was Joyce’s writing that really has me clamouring to write something (anything!) about this book that might persuade you to pick it up. I’m pretty sure that Rachel Joyce could write a shopping list and it would be wonderful, insightful and would have my heart aching for a happy outcome for…the milk? Ok, let’s stop with the analogy there…There aren’t many authors I’ve come across that can turn looking for something on the pavement into a couple of paragraphs that are so adorably romantic that even after sitting here and having them up on my screen for pretty much the entire time I’ve been writing this review (a while…), I still can’t help but “Awwww” every time I read them (even after omitting the name of the lady in question to avoid spoilers!).

He will not share a lift with [her]. They will not go for a drink. He thinks briefly of how she fell still when she talked about losing things, how she watched and said nothing while Paula shouted. It was like meeting [her] in completely different, light summer clothes.

Jim wonders if she had mislaid something on the pavement after all. And then it occurs to him that if she did, he would like to spend forever finding it” [Page 159, eBook edition]

Overall: A brilliant choice for the run up to Christmas or for buying as a Christmas gift – you might not believe me when you start out (or until the final few chapters, if I’m being honest…) but the ending is just one of those where I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to close the book and feel all warm inside and teary outside. I own The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and will definitely be reading it if it ever gets unpacked.

Date finished: 1 September 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in July 2013
Coming up soon in the frantic end of year review scramble: The Humans by Matt Haig; The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence and Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield