Rachel Joyce's debut, THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, was one of 2012's "feel good" novels. Not only did it have an uplifting premise (a retiree sets off on foot across England to save an old friend), it also was well written and sufficiently "literary" to satisfy book groups and critics alike --- the kind of book you could feel good about passing on to your best friends.
On the surface, Joyce's follow-up, PERFECT, has a much darker premise and tone. The novel is composed of two parallel narratives that unfold in alternating chapters. The first, set in 1972, centers on an 11-year-old boy named Byron and his best friend, James. James, the cleverest boy at the pair's private school, has set Byron on edge by informing him that, because "time was out of joint with the movement of Earth," two "leap seconds" were going to be added to time. For James, this is just another piece of harmless trivia, but Byron can't let go of the idea: "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."
"Much as she did with her unforgettable character of Harold Fry, Joyce here skillfully draws characters who will remain in readers' imaginations for a long time."
Byron's apprehensions seem a sort of magical thinking, since, one morning that summer when his family is running late for school, his mother makes the unexpected (and, to Byron, somewhat horrifying) decision to take a shortcut by cutting through Digby Estates, a working-class suburb that lies between Byron's family's country estate and the exclusive public school he attends. When, just as Byron is convinced his watch is running backwards, his mother makes a terrible mistake behind the wheel, Byron and his entire world are never the same.
The other narrative, set in the present day, concerns a man named Jim who works at a supermarket café. Having spent much of his life at a mental institution overly fond of electroshock therapy, he finds himself both unequipped to deal with the "real world" and unable to remember large chunks of his life. When (in a nice piece of parallelism that might seem forced if it weren't so well written) Jim is involved in a minor car accident, his coworkers at the café find ways to connect with the lonely man and reintroduce him to the world.
Much as she did with her unforgettable character of Harold Fry, Joyce here skillfully draws characters who will remain in readers' imaginations for a long time. Jim, of course, is one of them --- his compulsions, wrenching history, and earnest desire to find a way for himself in the world combine to make for a thoroughly sympathetic character. Even more compelling, however, is the character of Byron's mother, Diana. Bullied by her traditional husband (he brags about buying his wife a Jaguar and insists that she wear 1950s-style pencil skirts and pumps while the other housewives wear crocheted tops and caftans) while quietly harboring her own ideas about feminism, Diana is a complicated character whose full story is only revealed gradually. Her vulnerabilities result not only in her initial mistake but also in the chain of events that follow it (including a friendship of convenience with a menacing and manipulative woman). And her childlike demeanor not only facilitates her husband's bullying but also elicits the protective impulses of Byron and James, for better or for worse.
Much of the suspense and mystery in the novel, of course, involve the question of whether (and how) the two narratives will intersect. Some readers might guess the connection for themselves; others will be surprised. Pretty much everyone, though, will be touched by the cautious hopefulness of the novel's ending.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 17, 2014
- Publication Date: January 14, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Random House
- ISBN-10: 0812993306
- ISBN-13: 9780812993301