The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville.
The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville. Penguin Books (2003), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 416 pages. First published 2000.
A warm and wonderful novel by a fine Australian author with the unusual ability to probe her characters’ thoughts and feelings.
The plot of this book is simple. Harley and Douglas have both come to a small, isolated town for brief professional visits. She is assisting local people set up a Heritage Museum, and he is supervising the destruction and replacement of a nearby bridge. Both are totally lacking in self-esteem and painfully awkward in dealing with others. Over time, the two develop a stumbling friendship, and both learn to move beyond the images they think they are required to present to find acceptance for who they really are.
Grenville is a brilliant writer capable of creating stunning and detailed landscapes. She takes her readers deeply inside her characters. We see the lies they tell themselves, and with the two main characters, we see them change how they think about themselves. We experience Harley’s fear of relationships, even her fear of relating with the stray dog that adopts and adores her. With Douglas we see him discover that he does have courage, in both physically and socially dangerous situations. Some characters in book are less flexible. Felicity, the wife of the bank manager, had wanted to be a model. Grenville shows us her preoccupation with her own appearance and the lies she tells herself about other men’s love for her. Her internal conversation assuring herself she is not being racist toward Freddy, the Chinese butcher, is a priceless example of the lies we all tell ourselves. Her refusal to face reality highlights the magical discovery of the real world by Harley and Douglas.
As I read The Idea of Perfection, I marked phrases and sentences which particularly impressed me with the idea of coming back and quoting some of them. What I discovered in the process was the way Grenville used repeating images and situations to give her book both depth and unity. I was able to penetrate the surface of her writing and see techniques that are usually invisible to me. I found that exciting.
Darkness and light play roles in the book. We do not simply visualize them; we feel them physically. The harsh summer sun burns us and night envelops us. Shadows make their own patterns around the individuals. Harley’s quilts and Douglas’s bridge reveal patterns of darkness and light. Freddy’s photography studio is filled with bright lights and black corners in which Felicity is hidden and revealed. More abstractly, characters and the community have their own lights and darknesses. When the darkness within themselves and others is brought to light, Harley and Douglas choose to surrender their ideas of perfection for themselves and for others. In contrast, Felicity clings to her obsession with a perfect appearance.
I strongly recommend The Idea of Perfection to all who love excellent writing and a well-told story.