Rachel Joyce's 'Perfect' A Flawed, But Hopeful Novel Rachel Joyce's new novel offers two parallel narratives: the 1972 story of Byron, an anxious schoolboy, and the present-day account of Jim, a supermarket worker who has spent most of his life in institutional care. But critic Ellah Allfrey says that the novel is made up of two distinct and unequal parts.
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Rachel Joyce's 'Perfect' A Flawed, But Hopeful Novel

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Rachel Joyce's 'Perfect' A Flawed, But Hopeful Novel


Book Reviews


Rachel Joyce burst onto the literary scene two years ago with a widely acclaimed novel, "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" was nominated for Britain's Man Booker Prize. This month, Joyce has a new novel out. Reviewer Ellah Allfrey doesn't think this one holds up to close scrutiny.

ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: It's 1972, when we meet Byron Hemmings. He's an English school boy living in the country with his mother and sister. Byron's father works in the City and only comes home to see his family at the weekends. He pays for the big house, his wife's Jaguar and private schools, but in reality, he's just a visitor in their lives. And it doesn't take long to see that that might be for the best. They don't seem like a happy family.

The story begins during a Leap Year, when Byron's best friend tells him that two extra seconds will be added to the clock. Byron becomes obsessed with this wrinkle in time and the danger he thinks it poses. And, of course, his worst fears are confirmed when on the way to school, his mother takes a route forbidden by her husband and there's an accident.

From then on, everything is out of kilter and the lives of all these characters begin to unravel. This is Rachel Joyce's second book and the structure is ambitious. She tells a 1970 story of Bryon and at the same time, she introduces us to present day Jim. He's a supermarket worker in his 50s trying his best to cope after decades in institutional care.

He has no friends or family and he lives in a broken down camper-van. But even though the descriptions of Jim are stark and affecting, in the end, the novel is made up of two separate and unequal parts. The story of Byron and his family is less (unintelligible) structured than the modern sections and at times, the book seemed to lack cohesion.

There might be just too much going on. Hints that Byron's mother was rescued from a disreputable past, the snobbery of the local middle class housewives, the emotional distance of the father along with issues of class tension, races and domestic subjugation of women and the general critique of society, it was hard to know where to focus my attention.

As the summer passes, Byron's mother gets caught up in a doomed attempt to salvage the order and routine of their lives. But slowly, Byron begins to see that there will be no redemption for this family. Thankfully, Joyce allows us to hold out some hope for Jim. He eventually does form a meaningful friendship with a woman named Eileen.

Even with its flaws, this is a book populated by characters trying their best to find a place in the world. And while Joyce only succeeds in part, there is pleasure in witnessing Jim's grim determination to conquer the demons of his past, and to claim love, home and happiness for himself at last.

BLOCK: The book is "Perfect" by Rachel Joyce. It was reviewed for us by editor and critic, Ellah Allfrey.

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