By Rachel Joyce
385 pages, $25
By Charity Vogel
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
The “Unlikely Pilgrimage” was an unlikely best-seller.
Now, Rachel Joyce – who had a surprise hit with her first book, about an older man who walks across England in search of a friend – is back with a new novel that, while different than the story of Harold Fry, is almost its equal as a treat.
Joyce’s work is turning her, within the space of two novels, into a major talent in British fiction.
She seems to be well-loved, too – not bad, for a writer who had an acting career for 20 years before turning to books.
The Buffalo News Book Club picked “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” as its monthly selection last May.
The charm of that novel was in its conceit: a man, trying to reconnect with an ailing friend, who leaves his wife and home and walks across the breadth of the country.
Harold Fry is a modern pilgrim – seeking connection, at the very least. In his tattered shoes, Harold is someone we all feel we know: a wayfarer in a place that can be cruel and blissful by turns.
In “Perfect,” Joyce shifts as far from Harold Fry as possible. This novel is about a woman, not a man. She is young, not approaching old age. She is blond, glamorous, rich – think Grace Kelly or Gwyneth Paltrow – and pretty close to “perfect,” as she is dubbed midway through the novel.
The story is also about the woman’s son, Byron Hemmings, who is 11. It is through Byron’s eyes that we see the action of the story play out. Flawed as a narrator, Byron still sees a lot, for a boy who is on the near side of adolescence.
“Byron had always liked the way his mother referred to an item by its brand name,” Joyce writes. “It implied a specificity he found reassuring. It was like the small reminders she left for herself on the telephone pad: Polish Lucy’s Clarks shoes. Buy Turtle Wax polish. A label suggested that there was one correct name for each thing and no room for mistakes. Now, as Byron watched her tidying the kitchen and singing under her breath, the irony of it brought a lump to his throat. He must do everything in his power to keep her safe.”
“Perfect” is set partly in 1972 – a time when Byron’s mother, Diana, wears pencil skirts, matching cardigans and “pointy heels,” and carefully does her hair for her important husband’s weekend visits. (Only once, late in the book, does Diana dare to wear a kaftan – a move that is quickly squelched.)
Diana Hemmings has everything a woman could want: a respectable, if tightly wound, husband; a large house decorated in elegant luxury, complete with gardens and grounds; and a new Jaguar, which her husband likes her to drive because it stirs up the envy of the neighbors.
It is on a typical morning, on their way to school in this car, that an unexpected incident befalls Diana and the children. (Those who know the start of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” will recognize a parallel; it is fleeting, however.)
The rest of the story – the core of it – is about what happens after that: the impression the episode makes on Byron and his best friend, James; the close friendship that Diana forms in an unlikely quarter; and the aftershocks of the event on the family and the town in which they live.
The story of the Hemmings family is interwoven, chapter for chapter, with the story of an older man named Jim, set in the present day. These chapters add, by the end of the tale, another layer of pathos to the story – but, to this reader at least, they were not as riveting as the chapters set in the past.
Joyce has a conceit in this novel, as she did in Harold Fry: Here it is not walking across a country, but a supposed shift in time – with a loss of two seconds – that is needed to set the world straight again.
Joyce’s two novels can be seen as counterweights, in a sense: one exploring distance, one time. She is interested in how we measure the things around us and ourselves. “It is only in seeing all these not-Eileens that Jim understands how truly Eileen she is,” we read at one point in the novel. Complex calculus, indeed.
As with Harold Fry’s story, the conceit works here. But it is not necessary.
With or without the two seconds that so mesmerize young Byron, Joyce’s second novel is another balancing act of good writing and compelling story – worth picking up, for those who liked her “Unlikely Pilgrimage,” and for others, too.
Charity Vogel is a coordinator of the Book Club at The Buffalo News and a staff reporter.