If you have a child in your life or haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be one, you know the kaleidoscopic way kids make sense of the world. It’s all shards and shapes and sudden colors, and the details don’t always add up. That’s what we see through the eyes of Byron Hemmings, the eleven-year-old boy at the center of Perfect, Rachel Joyce’s dark and disquieting second novel.
We enter the story in the spring of 1972. Byron lives in a country house at the edge of an English moor with his little sister, Lucy, and their beautiful mother, Diana. Their father, Seymour, spends the weekdays in London, where he works in the financial district. He’s stern and controlling, and his weekend visits to Diana and the children are tense affairs. They’re something to be endured until Sunday night, when Seymour leaves and life returns to normal.
For Byron, normal life isn’t all that great. He’s an introvert, overweight, and, when we meet him, overwrought. He’s worked himself into a state over the decision to add two “leap seconds” to time in order to sync up the world’s clocks. Byron’s best friend, James, had tossed off this bit of information as a fun fact, something to talk about during the dull school day. Diana is equally blasé. But to Byron, mucking around with time puts the workings of very universe at risk.
“Two seconds are huge,” Byron tells Diana when she tries to soothe him. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening. You could take one step too many and fall over the edge of a cliff. It’s very dangerous.”
Sure enough, something happens. Diana is driving the children to school when a thick fog sweeps down off the moors. It obliterates the road, stops traffic, and puts the children in danger of being tardy. On an impulse Diana takes a detour through the unfamiliar territory of the local public housing development. It’s a lower-class area that Seymour, ever a guardian of his family’s moneyed status, has declared off-limits. Byron looks at his watch and the second hand stutters backwards. In his frenzy to warn Diana that the perilous two extra seconds have just now appeared, he distracts her and there is an accident.
As Byron starts his struggle to contain the fallout from the fateful detour, Joyce weaves in a second story. Here we meet Jim, a man in his early fifties, living in the present day. It’s set in the same bit of English countryside but transformed by the recent addition of a cookie-cutter housing development.
Jim is deeply damaged, most visibly by a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. To deal with the torment, Jim has shrunk his life down to two barely manageable worlds. There’s his home, a ramshackle van parked at the edge of the moor, where he performs an endless series of intricate rituals. And there’s his job as a busboy at a supermarket café. There, a fellow employee, the free-spirited Eileen, doggedly pursues Jim despite his growing distress.
Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was published in 2012, but she’s no newcomer to storytelling. An actress who became an award-winning writer of radio plays for BBC Radio 4, Joyce received strong reviews for her first novel, which earned a spot on the long list for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.
In Perfect, as in her first book, Joyce explores mental illness, gender roles, and social class. The lovely Diana has a mysterious, perhaps even unsavory past, and Sydney makes sure there is no trace of it. While the other women in town move into the 1970s in tank tops and peasant skirts, Diana is required to cling to the markers of a vanishing era:
Byron’s father preferred his wife to dress more formally. With her slim skirts and pointy heels, her matching handbag and her notebook, Diana made the other women look both oversized and underprepared.
Though here, too, Joyce’s characters carry soul-searing secrets, the compensating sugary whimsy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is gone. In its place Joyce has constructed a world of merciless cause-and-effect. And though Perfect is told through the close-focus view of two unreliable narrators, a crucial revelation in the end turns the story on its head even as it sews it together.
“[F]or one person to help another, for one small act of kindness to succeed, a lot must go well, a myriad of things must fall into place,” Jim thinks near the end of the book, finally finding light at the end of his ordeal. And the author’s own act of kindness at the end of the book leaves the kaleidoscope transformed from broken vision to a hard-won kind of grace.