Rachel Joyce’s novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was one of my favourite books last year, so I was understandably eager to read Perfect. While I don’t think this story will linger with me quite as long as Harold did, I did find it a haunting and beautifully-constructed novel.
Perfect tells two stories, separated by forty years. The book begins with young Byron Hemmings, an English schoolboy from a well-to-do family who is concerned because a friend has told him that the government is going to add two seconds to the year. Byron doesn’t understand how you can just tamper with time like that — a lot can happen in two seconds. Sure enough, a lot does happen in two seconds when Byron’s mother Diana is driving through an unfamiliar working-class neighbourhood and hits a little girl on a bicycle. From that two-second impact a series of events unspools that will lead to tragedy.
In alternating chapters in between Byron’s story, we meet Jim, a mentally ill man in his fifties who has spent his whole life in and out of a mental hospital. Currently living in a rundown camper van and working at a supermarket cafe, Jim barely holds his life together with obsessive-compulsive rituals and struggles to cope with everyday life now that the hospital where he spent so many years has closed and he’s out on the streets with no support. It’s a momentary collision with a car that also transforms Jim’s life, forcing him to interact with other people in ways that challenge and change him.
For most of the book there’s no indication of how the two stories fit together, although the reader is encouraged to draw conclusions. As with Harold Fry, there’s a revelation near the end of the story that both confirms and challenges our suspicions — it may not be what we initially expected, but it makes perfect sense of everything that’s gone before.
Intriguing as both Byron and Jim are, the really intriguing character her, the axis around which the story revolves, is Byron’s mother Diana. Byron’s childhood best friend thinks Diana is “perfect” and she certainly is trying hard to be perfect. She’s married to Seymour, a wealthy and distant man who leaves her alone with the children in an elegant home all week while he works in London, and comes home only for weekend visits that make everyone uncomfortable. Diana has married “above her station” and is trying hard to fit her husband’s expectations, but the accident forces her to confront what lies beneath the perfect veneer of her new life.
I found this a quick but very compelling read.