Perfect by Rachel Joyce


I’d like to start by saying how much I loved Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It had such charm, and the characters were lovingly written, even the minor ones. I’d come to it without expectations, it just swept me up and carried me along with Harold on his odd journey. I say all this because I think Rachel Joyce is a wonderful writer who can create magic out of the everyday lives of unexceptional people. My expectations for Perfect were high – possibly too high.

Two stories are told in Perfect. I think the main narrative is the one set in 1972, the year in which two seconds were added to time to align the clocks with the earth’s rotation. These two seconds preoccupy young Byron Hemming, as he puzzles over how time can be changed and when exactly the change will take place. His best friend James is very clever, but even he doesn’t seem to have all the information Byron needs. His obsession contributes to a very bad thing happening. The rest of this thread of the novel is about Byron’s attempts to repair the damage done and deal with the ongoing repercussions.

The second strand of the story is set in the present day as Jim tries to adjust to life in the outside world. He has spent much of his life in an institution as he battles with depression and compulsive behaviour. He needs to complete evermore elaborate rituals to ensure no one else around him gets hurt. It’s a lonely existence, apart from his colleagues at the local shopping centre cafe he has no friends or family to support him. Jim’s story moves backwards and forwards, as he reflects on his old life and tries to get on with his new one.

Although the two strands are clearly linked, they are kept quite separate for most of the novel. It is only at the end that the two stories become one whole. Jim’s story is quite moving at times, and there is a quiet redemptive aspect to it that I found very appealing. The hope that he can find a better way to live is still in him, despite the struggle of daily life he never completely abandons that hope. I did wonder why he’d lived so long in care; the place seems to have only recently closed down at the beginning of Jim’s story. In his recollections of the place I got a kind of slippage of time myself as it all felt very old-fashioned and I wasn’t sure when he was remembering. I can understand him being stuck in the 1970s, but I got a bit confused because it didn’t seem as if mental healthcare had changed for him much in over thirty years. I did enjoy his story though, and it had me near to tears on more than one occasion.

The story radiating from the two seconds is a bit problematic for me, mainly because I’m not great with drippy female characters who continually let life happen to them. Byron’s mother Diana is so passive so much of the time, which is doubly frustrating because actually she is interesting and individual. When she occasionally comes to life she is wonderful and spirited. But most of the time she limply does what’s expected of her, obedient to the men in her life to the point of allowing herself to be guided by her son into dealing with the accident that occurs. She takes abuse from her husband, is patronised by the other school mums, and is taken advantage of over and over by her new friend. None of what happens is inevitable, but misery truly does love company in the Hemming household.

I don’t know whether my expectations were too high, or whether the story just didn’t quite work for me, but I didn’t love Perfect as much as I thought I would. I write that with a heavy heart and a sneaking suspicion that I missed something that other people have found in the book.

Thank you very much to the publisher for sending me a proof copy of the book. Perfect is available now in Hardback.

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