‘Perfect: A Novel’ doesn’t quite live up to its title

Published: January 19 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:20 am in
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British author Rachel Joyce — whose debut novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” was met with critical acclaim, including being longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize — has published her second novel “Perfect: A Novel,” released Jan. 14.

“Perfect” takes the reader to an English village in 1972.

An 11-year-old boy, Byron, discovers that the government is adding two seconds to the day and he becomes obsessed with when it will happen. One morning on the way to school, he thinks he sees it on his watch. Distracted as he tries to show his mom who is driving at the time, she hits a little girl on a bicycle.

Instead of stopping, she drives off. Byron and his friend James are so horrified and worried about the girl that “Operation Perfect” is enacted to protect Byron’s mother from facing the consequences.

The story of Byron alternates with another storyline set in the present time in the same English village. An adult man, Jim, lives a life confined by his daily rituals and past demons. At first, the connection between the two stories isn’t clear, but as the story goes on, it’s impossible not to make assumptions about Jim’s identity.

When the true connection is revealed, you’ll want to go back and read everything again.

Byron is obsessed with the addition of the two seconds. His anxiety is palpable and his frustration with his mother, Diana, and the absence of his controlling father, Seymour, is contagious. Diana is so unchanged by the hit-and-run accident that as a reader you wonder if Byron imagined it.

The society ladies, friends of Diana, reminded me more of 1950s ladies than women of the 1970s, but maybe America was farther ahead than the English in the feminist movement at that time.

As engrossing as Byron’s story is, the interruptions every other chapter with Jim’s story, is annoying at first.

Jim lives in a van, is socially awkward and is overwhelmed by his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder characteristics. His story was mostly uninteresting to me until the end of the book. Jim has had a disturbing history and his co-workers try to help him. His years at the psychiatric hospital keep coming back in his mind and you wonder if his psychosis is due to his past or his electric shock treatment that he received. His story opens your eyes to the horrors of psychiatric hospitals and the patient’s life after discharge.

“Perfect” wasn’t the “perfect” book for me, but there were many parts of it that I did love.

Joyce’s writing is poetic and there were many thought-provoking lines that gave me pause. She is able to paint a picture with words, such as this description of an evening: “Apart from the buffeting wind, the lack of sound up here is breathtaking. For a while neither of them speaks. They just push slowly against the wind. It charges at their bodies and whistles through the long grasses with the rage of the sea. There are many stars sprinkled like embers over the sky ... the horizon is rimed with orange light. It is streetlamps, but you might think it was a fire, somewhere very far away.”

For those who appreciate literary prose and a deeply rooted storyline, “Perfect” could be just that.

Read more reviews by Stacie Gorkow at Sincerelystacie.com.

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