In 1972, two seconds were added to time because it was Leap Year and because time was ‘out of joint’ with the movement of the Earth. It is the addition of these two seconds which causes such upheaval in the life of Byron Hemmings, an imaginative 11-year old boy, and his school friend James. Perfect by Rachel Joyce is about the impact of those two seconds, one stiflingly hot summer. Who would have thought that such a small stumble in time could disrupt so many lives?
Rachel Joyce is an accomplished storyteller with a simple style which is deceptively complex. She weaves together Byron’s story with Jim’s, a troubled man who cleans tables in a supermarket café whilst battling his inner demons. Not once does she explain the link between these two stories, allowing the reader’s imagination to suggest possibilities, until right at the end when she surprises us with the truth. Car accidents feature in both strands, but neither car accident is what it seems. Both accidents are catalysts for what comes next.
The voice of the boy/almost teenager Byron is an interesting choice which allows Joyce to show us the inside of his parents’ marriage, without Byron fully understanding what he is seeing. At once he has both a child’s perception, and an adult’s. Joyce trusts the reader to believe or not believe Byron’s interpretation of things.
She has a similarly subtle approach to observation, hinting at the differences between Byron’s mother Diana, and Diana’s new friend Beverley, by how they walk. Diana’s ‘slim heels’ go “clip clip”. Beverley’s sandals follow with a “slap slap.” Diana is a wisp of a character, light, graceful and young, young in comparison with her son. Very young compared with her husband Seymour who dominates the house, despite his absence during the week, with his stern rules of do’s and don’ts. Diana’s car, a Jaguar he bought for her as a means of demonstrating his success, comes to symbolise his power over her. First she accedes to his control, then chafes against it and finally rebels.
Byron watches this with discomfort and uncertainty, unsure who this new mother, this new Diana, is. As his mother grows more mentally frail, he begins unconsciously to echo his father. He doesn’t like Beverley calling his mother ‘Di’ for example. “It was like cutting her in half.” As Diana leaves household tasks undone, he does them for her.
Joyce has a deft way of handling the mood. One moment, light-hearted, then with a sentence she twists the heartstrings and adds another small touch of mystery. Jim learns that having a friend means laughing at things and seeing them through the friend’s eyes, as if the friend is “the part of themselves that is missing.” Do we all have something missing, which is provided by our friends and loved ones, or is it just Jim? And what happened to Jim to mess him up like this?
Perfect is about the nature of time, starting with the extra seconds and moving onto Diana’s abandonment of clocks. An exploration of whether time can heal a painful past.
‘Perfect’ by Rachel Joyce [UK: Doubleday] Buy now
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