I approached this second novel by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry not so much with trepidation but with a certain reserve, simply because some reviews I had read suggested I would find Perfect a much bleaker novel than Joyce’s first, and I wasn’t sure the extent to which I was prepared for bleak.
This novel, as does its predecessor, deals with how the past informs the present, and the two narrative threads, past and present, run fairly parallel in the work. Joyce is very successful in evoking the ambience of the early seventies. Perhaps this is one reason why I found the work disturbing. I had, to a certain extent, forgotten just how restrictive middle-class life could be for women then. But to what extent have things really changed other than the fact that perhaps more middle class women are now in the work force than in the past? Certainly, the subtle, abuse endured by some women within the privacy of the domestic sphere has not changed. Further, I am tempted to argue that the anxieties fed by aspiration to status and material goods have in fact increased rather than decreased over the last forty or so years. But I digress somewhat.
In addition to its examination of social pressure, the novel also offers a sensitive presentation of the trials and terrors of mental illness and at times delivers an indictment of the system of mis/treating the mentally ill and the failures of “care in the community.”
While addressing the challenges of those on the margins of society and the fears of those who fear the implications of those margins, Perfect is also something of a mystery novel. We wonder how the two narratives interconnect. As those connections become clearer to us, Perfect raises questions about cause and effect, and questions of cause and effect lead ultimately to questions about responsibility. What actions lead to which results? How does one differentiate between intent and accident, and to what extent does one attribute blame?
Acts of commission and omission dictate the characters’ actions and cast long shadows into their futures. Guilt, secrecy, and possible atonement lie at the heart of this novel. Joyce offers no easy solutions to the moral questions. However, at the end of the book, one feels satisfied even if the hopeful note at the end is “slight, pale as a new shoot” (385).