Is two seconds enough to change your life? In 1972 Byron’s school friend, James, tells him that time needs to be changed, that it’s out of kilter with the movement of the earth and two seconds need to be added. Byron watches for the moment it happens and when he finally sees it, his reaction sparks a chain of events more devastating than anyone could have predicted:
‘Time had been splintered and everything was different.’
Coming soon after her bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (avid Bookmunchers may recall that I picked that as my favourite of 2012), Perfect is Rachel Joyce’s second novel. It had a lot to live up to and in some ways I approached it with a little trepidation, worried that it wouldn’t be as good, but it didn’t disappoint at all. Perfect has all the trademarks that made Harold Fry so good: engaging, sympathetic characters damaged by events in their past; wonderful descriptions of setting using vivid prose that captures images using an eye that never looks at anything head on, but instead comes at it sideways so the writing is fresh and exciting, and a wonderful plot that has enough of a dark heart to provide a raw emotional experience that lingers.
The shining star in this story is the relationship between Byron and his mother Diana. Although she is beautiful and kind, Byron senses that she’s not like the other mothers at his smart private school and he feels the need to protect her, so he does things like placing a four leaf clover under her pillow as ‘he knew it would save her because James said clover was lucky’. Diana keeps herself, the home and her new Jaguar car immaculate for the arrival of her exacting husband, Seymour, who works away during the week, returning only at the weekends. The tension comes from the knowledge that this level of perfection cannot be maintained and once the addition of the two seconds arrives, and in Byron’s mind causes, an accident only he seems to see, Diana and their family life begins to unravel. Byron fears what will happen to his beautiful mother, knowing that it wasn’t her fault:
‘You haven’t done anything wrong because you didn’t know. There was the mist and the extra seconds. You’re not to blame.’
To put everything right Byron enlists the help of his studious friend James.
As Diana’s life begins to spiral downwards she forms a poisonous relationship with Beverley, a manipulative, odious woman from the unsavoury Digby Road who plays on the apparent social difference between them and Diana’s unease with it. Beverley soon assumes control over Diana, aided by Byron’s attempt to repair the damage caused by the two seconds. She comes (at Byron’s invitation) to their house demanding Snowballs and Cherry Cola and allows her daughter, Jeanie, to break Byron’s sister’s toys. As Byron and James scheme to repair the damage caused by the addition of the two seconds, the situation worsens with disastrous consequences.
The other major relationship in this story, that between Byron and James, is perfectly captured: ‘James understood things in ways that Byron couldn’t; he was like the logical piece of Byron that was missing’. The story is told in alternating points of view between Byron and then years later from a fifty something Jim. It’s clear quite quickly that Jim is either Byron or James in the present, but Joyce keeps us guessing as to who he is. Initially I disliked the switch away from Byron’s story, feeling that his narrative was the more successful of the two, but I grew to like Jim’s side of the story. Jim lives in a van parked up against the ever imposing moor and works in a supermarket cafe. He has a history of psychiatric illness and he tries to make sure nothing bad happens by carrying out a complicated serious of rituals, such as saying ‘hello’ to inanimate objects and taping duct tape around his doors and windows at night. The reader senses the hurt and anguish inside Jim: ‘His past is like the sounds that drift from the hills, that are made of air’, wishing him a happy ending. His guilt at something that happened to him, however, eats away at his soul and we know he’ll never have peace unless he atones for that because ‘no matter how many times he did the rituals he would never protect himself because the thing he most feared had already happened.’ Towards the end the two narratives collide and although I suspect some readers may find this a little contrived, I enjoyed it.
Joyce writes in fluid easy prose that seems effortless. It’s not easy to write from a child’s point of view, particularly for the adult reader, yet Joyce demonstrates her skill as a writer by capturing this perfectly. The relationship between the two boys and the plan they hatch, Codenamed Perfect, to try and right the wrongs of the additional two seconds is spot on. Joyce understands how children think and has used this knowledge to produce a devastating plot.
Seymour is an interesting character in the story. The relationships he has with his wife and son are painful to watch. There are echoes of the relationship Harold Fry had with his son, but whereas we were on Harold’s side, we have little sympathy with Seymour until one moment when we see a glimpse of his own childhood and Joyce steers us clear of absolute dislike of Seymour towards a modicum of understanding, although not forgiveness. As we only see Seymour from Byron’s point of view, we only have glimpses with which to judge him, but it’s enough to unsettle the reader, providing an undercurrent of menace and fear that elevates this story.
Any Cop?: Joyce’s stories are deceptively simple, but they drill down into the very core of what it is to be human with all the faults, fears and joy that entails producing complex, emotionally powerful writing that’s a joy to read.