Monday, January 27, 2014

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

It’s a lot easier to find good old books than good new ones. Old books have the benefit of hindsight--go back 50 years and the dross has mostly disappeared. Pick up a new release and you can’t be sure if you’re picking up the new David Foster Wallace or the new Dan Brown. So when I get a book like Perfect, which is moving, emotionally and structurally complex but easy to read, and is just that GOOD, it’s such a treat that I can’t wait to share it.

Perfect is only Joyce’s second novel, but it’s made me think I should seek out her first. Hinging on an insignificant event--two seconds added to the year in the 70s by the UK government--it is told with in split perspective, with chapters in the past, featuring Byron, an unusually sensitive child for whom the two seconds are a terrifying prospect, and chapters in the present, featuring a man named Jim who seems to be suffering from some extreme OCD disorder and is struggling to maintain both his job and his fragile grip on reality. However, there’s really no way to discuss Jim’s section without delving pretty deeply into spoiler territory, so I’ll focus on Byron here.

Byron is one of those protagonists who is simultaneously relatable and a little offputting. A grade schooler who’s frightened of everything, Byron’s security is built on two things: his relationship with his best friend, James, and his saintly mother, Diana. Something happens early in the novel that upends Byron’s world and he spends the rest of the novel trying to make sense of it. There’s no way to complete this review without the spoilers below, which occur within the first 30 or so pages of the book, so stop reading now if you want to go in blind like I did.


On the way to school, in the fog, driving through a bad part of town, Diana hits a little girl on a bicycle and doesn’t notice due to the weather. Byron sees it happen but is afraid to say anything, to his mother or anyone else. This event sets into motion a slow motion trainwreck as Byron and James try to stop something that might be unstoppable.

Because this book has been out maybe a week, I don’t want to spoil any more of it. I will say, though, that Perfect is an unusually rewarding book. I read a lot of novels, and while I can appreciate the low-key epiphany of an ending, there’s something gratifying about a novel that manages such a strong emotional payoff while still leaving open some ambiguity. Some late novel twists and turns could have easily come off gimmicky, but Joyce’s attention to detail and sustained atmosphere of a slightly off-kilter fable keep the whole thing on the rails to the very end. She manages to communicate real tragedy without ever succumbing to miserablism, and, in the end, Perfect even manages to be uplifting in its own unique way.


Christopher said...

Is that two seconds thing true?

Brent Waggoner said...

I thought so, but I can't find any documentation.

You should read this.

Anonymous said...

"unusually rewarding" is a very intriguing description - makes me want to pick this up right away!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.