In many ways, Rachel Joyce’s second novel, Perfect, is the opposite of her first. Some critics called The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, which followed a middle-aged man walking across all of England to visit an old friend, overly twee and whimsical. But in her attempts to shake things up, Joyce shifted too far on the emotional spectrum with Perfect, a dark and constrained novel that’s beautifully written, but too painful to love.
Perfect’s narrative alternates between the perspectives of Byron, a young boy living in the British countryside in 1972, and Jim, a man with crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder who lives in the same area during the modern day. Jim’s chapters are a strange fusion between a tragic look at the treatment of the mentally ill and a workplace comedy complete with weird co-workers and desperate attempts to increase traffic and build morale at the grocery-store café where he works. Joyce showed an incredible sensitivity and understanding when she wrote about the impact of mental illness in Harold Fry, and that talent shines even brighter now that she’s devoting more space to the subject.
Still, it’s fortunate that Jim’s chapters are always shorter than Byron’s because the latter’s tale is far more compelling. When Byron’s mother, Diana, injures a young girl in a car accident, her guilt causes cracks in the seemingly perfect life she’s been living. The event leads to a very complicated relationship with the girl’s mother while bringing forward Diana’s unhappiness in her marriage and the fact that her lower-class origins make her uncomfortable around the other mothers at Byron’s school.
Joyce is great at building tension, with her prose managing to give huge weight to a menacing comment or a small mistake. One of the most powerful sources of drama is Byron’s emotionally distant father, Seymour, who spends most of his time in London. By using Seymour sparingly to show his cruelty to Diana and deep insecurity about his “new money” status, the character’s presence and absence have a dramatic impact on Byron and, in turn, the book itself. The moor, which is the setting for most of the action, becomes a character of its own thanks to its lush description:
“The sun was not yet fully risen, and caught in the low, weak shaft of light, the dew shone silver over the meadow although the crust of the earth beneath was hard and cracked. The ox-eye daisies made white pools on the lower hills, while every tree sprang a black leak away from the sun’s light.”
Yet Joyce’s most poetic lines aren’t descriptions of the natural world, but of the workings of Byron’s mind. In one section, where the character tries to come to terms with what he’s learning about his mother, Joyce writes, “His head was hot and spinning, dashing all around the things he could remember, overturning them like stones and trying to make sense, trying to see the underside of them.”
It’s clear from early on that Jim’s and Byron’s tales are intertwined, but Joyce throws in an unnecessary late plot twist that heaps further tragedy on the already sad story. Both Harold Fry and Perfect contain plenty of grief, but end on optimistic notes. Here’s hoping Joyce finds can draw from both of them to strike a better emotional balance in her next work.