With The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, her best-selling debut novel, Rachel Joyce created a rod for her own back. Admired by critics and much loved by readers and book groups, it was always going to be a hard act to follow. That she then calls her second novel Perfect, an open goal if it is anything but, shows her mettle. The story is set in 1972 and the present day and follows the lives of two characters. Eleven-year-old Byron is struggling to make sense of life in early 1970s Britain while Jim, at fiftysomething, is struggling to survive in a world he doesn’t understand after years in and out of a psychiatric hospital.
Byron is a stolid, middle-class boy attending a private school where he and his best friend, James Lowe, are academic, non-sporty outsiders. James is the cleverest boy in the school and he imparts all manner of interesting facts to Byron, including the news that two seconds will be added to time in order to balance clock time with the movement of the earth. Byron’s mother, Diana, is late for the school run one day and takes a short cut through a sink estate. As her Jaguar purrs along Byron sees his watch go into reverse for two seconds at the exact moment Diana makes a dreadful mistake. Unaware of her error Diana blithely continues on to deliver Byron and his sister to school. Shocked, Byron eventually confides in James, who has a crush on Diana, and they devise Operation Perfect to shield her from the truth.
Joyce has gifted Byron with an endearing innocence and a habit of putting his foot in his mouth that means he is frequently at odds with the adults in his world. With subtlety she shows the disintegration of his parents’ marriage through his eyes; his father, Seymour, is cold and controlling while Diana chafes against her role as the perfect wife and mother. Byron decides that but for those extra two seconds his safe, orderly life would have continued and Joyce adroitly illustrates how the events that follow confound his childish logic. She does have a tendency to crowd her prose with similes and metaphors, some working better than others, and at times image piled upon image with no room to breathe threatens to overwhelm the characters.
In the present day, Jim is living alone in a camper van and missing the fixed routines of the psychiatric hospital. He has no one to support his transition from institutional life and struggles to hold on to his job at a café in a large store. Each day, he wipes tables and tries to avoid the gaze of his unsympathetic manager. Jim’s life is dominated by obsessive compulsive disorder which swallows up his time outside work, going through his routines time and time again trying to find an oasis of peace in a discordant world.
Jim is a likeable character, not so much afraid of other people as worried what harm might befall them because of him. He is gentle, enjoys gardening, and is not nearly as backward as his workmates assume. Joyce is suitably sensitive in recounting Jim’s OCD, showing how exhausting his complex regimes are and how their completion, or not, affects his state of mind. She also shows how Jim’s occasional confusion and memory loss – the result of electric shock therapy – make other people view him with fear and suspicion.
Joyce’s supporting characters are well drawn, none more so than Byron’s beautiful mother, Diana. There is something terribly sad and almost heroic about Diana’s efforts to fit into the role her husband has chosen for her. She floats through the novel like a ghostly figure, a damsel in distress that Byron and James attempt to save from the consequences of her unwitting mistake. She forms a kind of friendship with Beverley, who lives on the local sink estate, but fails to see that she is being fleeced by a cunning and avaricious woman. Jim, too, finds friendship in an unlikely place as Paula, who works at the café, comes to his aid when he has an accident. Together with her boyfriend Darren and Eileen, the short-order cook with flaming red hair, they draw Jim out of his comfort zone and back into the wider world.
Joyce deftly knits past and present together as Byron, James and Jim meet in the café where Jim works. There is a twist in the denouement that is unexpected but suddenly makes perfect sense and is not without hope. This is a compelling novel about the crushing restrictions that class and gender can impose, the burden of parental expectation, and the stigma attached to mental illness. While not perfect, and what in life is, it is certainly an affecting tale.