Perfect by Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2014; 400 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
“No matter what, every day when she was getting it right, when she was making the children their healthy breakfasts and washing their clothes, it seemed there was also the moment in the car when she had got it wrong. It was as if right from the beginning she had hit a child and not stopped the car, even before she learned to drive, even before she had met Seymour. The accident was always in her life, and whatever she did to make amends, nothing she did would ever be enough.
There are writers in the world who one feels a kinship to, whose work speaks to and ultimately interacts with one’s own. For me, Rachel Joyce is one of these writers. Perfect, her second novel, is artfully written, but more importantly it gets to the heart of human sickness. The novel is unsettling in a way her debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is not. Perfect, if possible, is darker, more tragic than her first novel, portraying the lives of two young boys, Byron and James, whose lives diverge due to a set of very different circumstances.
There are edges to Joyce’s novel, invisible lines that separate the sane from the insane, the rich from the poor, and the perfect from the imperfect. Failure, it seems, is only a matter of chance or, in this case, a matter of two additional seconds of time. The novel asks if one moment—a car accident—can alter the future. For Byron it does, leading to the unraveling of his mother and later himself. “‘There’s nothing wrong with you. Jim,’” says Eileen. “‘How come they kept you so long at Besley Hill?’”
“He begins trembling so hard he could almost fall. It is the question he most wants to answer […] It is so hard to say these things, these fragments of truth, he has to stop. He can’t tell anymore what is sky and what is land.”
This novel relentlessly pursues darkness and asks unanswerable questions. It makes one want to stop reading and to also read more. In the end, there is hope for Byron, lost for so long, as he meets and starts a life with his former co-worker, Eileen. While Joyce’s novel is not perfect, it certainly calls into question the nature of perfection. It asks questions of certainty and the shaky ground that lies between success and failure. This is a novel worth reading—perhaps, if one has the time, more than once.