It’s 1972, when we meet 11-year-old Byron Hemmings, an English school boy living with his mother and sister in a country house. Byron’s father Seymour works in the City (the financial district of London) and only comes home to see his family at the weekends. Though his work pays for the big house, the Jaguar that his wife drives and the private education his children receive, he is, in reality, only a visitor in their lives. Within several chapters one begins to believe that this is perhaps for the best — they don’t seem a happy family. The weekends are strained affairs, with Seymour intent on criticism and attempts at ensuring control and discipline while his wife and children seem to hold themselves in limbo, awaiting his departure each Sunday so they can reclaim normality.
In this, her second novel, the author of the acclaimed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ambitiously structures her story in two parallel narratives: the story of Byron and the present-day story of Jim. The early story begins during a Leap Year and when Byron’s best friend James tells him that two extra seconds will be added to the clocks, Byron becomes obsessed with the possible danger that he thinks the introduction of this wrinkle in time will bring. On the way to school one fog-laden morning, his mother takes a route forbidden by her husband — Byron sees his watch go backwards for two seconds and then there is an accident. It may all be a terrible mistake, but his worst fears are confirmed. From then on, everything is out of kilter and their lives begin to unravel. We are never sure just how much Byron is to blame for what happens, but it is Diana, his beautiful, fragile mother, who is most dramatically affected. And as she struggles, and fails, to maintain appearances, her guilt-ridden son and his friend James set up an elaborate plan to save her.
The second storyline follows the life of Jim, supermarket worker in his 50s trying his best to cope after decades in institutional care. With his nervous tics and obsessive-compulsive rituals, Jim is ill-equipped for life outside Besley Hill, the institutional home where he has spent most of his time from the age of 16. He has no friends or family, and lives in a broken down camper-van. He is a man alone in the world, a character whose every gesture and stuttered utterance speaks of loneliness, abandonment and emotional turmoil. It is his story that I found most deeply affecting. There is a poignancy to Joyce’s narrative that makes for her most memorable writing.
No one has ever been inside his van. It is the deepest part of himself, the part that no one must see. And thinking this, he is aware of a searing pain that is like a fresh rift between him and the rest of the world … Black rain begins to fall. It explodes on the paving stones of Cranham Village, the wheelie bins, the slate rooftops, and the van. Slowly Jim moves forward. Anything, he thinks, anything would be better than what lies ahead.
There are fluid segues between the two narratives as the connections between them are slowly revealed, but it seemed to me that this was a novel made up of two distinct and, in the end, unequal parts. Where there is a somewhat stark but sensitive portrayal of mental illness in the pages that narrate Jim’s efforts to conquer his demons, the story of the Hemmings family is less tightly structured and at times seemed lacking in cohesion.
And there is perhaps just too much going on. Along with heavy hints that Diana has been rescued from a disreputable past; the unremitting middle-class snobbery of the local housewives; Byron’s own oddness and the emotional distance of his mostly-absent father, there are also issues of class tension, racism, the domestic subjugation of women and a wider, much too generalized critique of society. The reader struggles to know where to focus attention and I found myself wishing the writer had imposed the same level of control on this narrative has she does with the contemporary story.
As the summer progresses and his mother becomes caught up in a woefully doomed effort to salvage the order and routine of their lives, Byron carries an increasingly heavy burden. He is a boy weighed down with responsibilities he cannot understand and problems he has no hope of solving. There is little support available and soon it becomes clear that there will be no redemption for this family. Thankfully, Joyce does allow us to hold out some hope for Jim. Although broken by his years of incarceration, a series of incidents lead to his forming a friendship with Eileen, a woman who is in many ways almost as damaged as he is.
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, Perfectis worth a read if only for the pleasure of witnessing Jim’s grim determination to conquer his past, and to claim love, home and hope for himself at last.