IN THE opening chapter of Perfect, Rachel Joyce’s second novel, one of the main characters, Diana, assures her husband on the phone that “everything’s as it should be”.
If their characters were to form a Venn diagram, at the heart would lie the word “perfectionist”. Because when we first meet them, and for very different reasons, Diana, Byron and James are all striving for that most destructive of ambitions. However, their seemingly perfect lives in an English village on the edge of a moor in the summer of 1972 are about to end.
Eleven-year-old Byron blames it on the government’s introduction of two leap seconds to balance clock time with the movement of Earth (a true fact). It is this that leads to an accident one morning in the local council estate as his mother takes a short cut to school. From that second on, everything begins to unravel as the shrewd Beverley from Digby Road enters their lives.
Joyce, a 50-year-old former actress and prolific Radio 4 playwright, whose first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, became a bestseller, is adept at invading the minds of the nervous, slightly autistic Byron and the love-starved, list-making James.
If you had to describe the storyline, it might seem bland and frankly unbelievable. That it is unputdownable lies in its exploration of so many multilayered emotions. There is the unbreakable bond between mother and son, the fear of not belonging, loneliness, grief, guilt, depression, loss, the destructive nature of mental illness and how love can offer redemption.
It has been a long time since a novel made me cry, but Joyce’s prose forced those tears out in the closing chapters. It is her clever did-I-read-that-right twist at the end that really got to me and had me scrabbling back though the chapters, open-mouthed. n