In 1972, two seconds were added to time. Schoolboy, James Lowe thinks this is ‘extremely exciting’:
First, man had put a man on the moon. Now they were going to alter time.
James’ friend, Byron Hemmings, doesn’t feel the same way:
But how could two seconds exist where two seconds had not existed before? It was like adding something that wasn’t there. It wasn’t safe.
It turns out to be very unsafe for Byron and his family. He becomes so preoccupied with the moment the two seconds will be added that when he thinks he sees the second hand on his watch moving backwards, he tells his mother to stop, grabbing her shoulder. His mother is driving. Late to drop Byron and his sister, Lucy, at their private school, they’ve taken a short cut through the local council estate where Byron’s father has ordered them never to go.
He couldn’t make sense of what came next. It was so fast. While he tried to poke his watch, or more specifically the adjusted second hand, in front of his mother’s face, he was also aware of the miracle tree and the little girl bicycling into the road. They were all part of the same thing. All of them shooting out of nowhere, out of the dense mist, out of time. The Jaguar swerved and his hands smacked into the mahogany dashboard to brace himself. As the car slammed to a halt there was a sound like a metallic whisper, and then there was silence.
The story that plays out following this moment is told by Byron but isn’t really his story – it is his mother, Diana’s. Diana is a woman ruled by her husband’s aspirations. ‘With her slim skirts and pointy heels, her matching handbags and her notebook, Diana made other women look both oversized and under-prepared.’ The house the Hemmings live in, the school Byron attends, the Jaguar Byron’s dad buys Diana are all designed to impress. To make the other mothers jealous; to show that the Hemmings are part of the established middle class.
Running alongside Diana’s story is one set in the present day. It is the story of Jim, a lonely man who lives in a caravan and works in a supermarket café. Jim’s life is ruled by rituals:
‘Door, hello,’ he says. ‘Taps, hello.’ He greets each of his possessions. ‘Kettle hello, Roll-up Mattress hello, Small Cactus Plant hello, Jubilee Tea Towel hello.’ Nothing must be left out. When everything has been greeted, he unlocks the door, opens it and steps outside…Then a dog barks and someone yells at it to shut up. Jim unlocks the door to the van and steps inside.
He performs the ritual twenty-one times.
Any dual narrative comes with an expectation that at some point the two stories will converge. Joyce does a good job of making the connection less obvious than it might appear at first.
The novel has three key themes: the class system – seen through Diana and the other mothers in her social circle and Beverly, who lives on the council estate; the position of women, and the fragility of our mental health. Joyce has astute points to make about all three, doing so through her characters, not at their expense or in a manner that is detrimental to their stories.
Perfect is a real move forward from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I enjoyed but at times seemed a little too contrived. Perfect has a voice that sparkles and engages you from the first page. The characters are fully formed human beings whose stories are heartbreakingly real. Indeed, at points, I thought I’d struggle to finish the book because there are moments where it’s so overwhelmingly sad. As Diana says towards the end of the novel:
‘We don’t know what to do with sadness. That’s the problem. We want to put it out of the way and we can’t.
Perfect examines that sadness, its causes and its effects and ultimately, whether redemption is possible.
Thanks to Transworld for the review copy.