In 1972, James Lowe told his best friend that two seconds were going to be added to the time. It was something he read about in the papers, a fun fact of sorts, but the information made eleven-year-old Byron Hemmings nervous. How could extra time possibly be added into existing time? It would throw everything off kilter. While James soon seems to forget the information, Bryon begins keeping vigil over clocks and watches, waiting to witness the exact moment when those two seconds would be added.
As Byron’s mother is driving him and his sister to school, it happens. The two seconds are added during that ominously foggy drive. Byron witnesses something during those two seconds and he knows that life will never be the same, but his mother and sister don’t seem to notice and carry on as if nothing happened. In the weeks ahead, Byron will be consumed as he tries to carry the secret of what he saw.
As the novel unfolds, the chapters alternate between two different points of view. The main one is Byron’s; much of the book is told through the eyes of his shattered eleven-year-old innocence. The other narrator is Jim, a man in his 50s who has spent his life in and out a local mental health facility that recently had to close its doors; he suffers from emotional issues and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Jim focuses on he numbers 2 and 1 and is convinced that if he doesn’t perform his daily rituals, people will get hurt. The tie between the two is unclear at first, though it becomes clearer as the book progresses.
The concept of “perfect” takes on different meanings. In many ways, Byron thinks of the time before those two seconds were added as “perfect,” when his mother was normal and everyone was happy. But, of course, things aren’t always so black and white; the Hemmings family is actually quite dysfunctional. They are wealthy, and Byron lives with his mother and sister on a sprawling estate with a pond; the children attend elite private schools.
Byron’s standoffish father, Seymour, comes every weekend from London, where he works, but even though they rarely see him, he demands the best and tightly controls everything right down to what Byron’s mother, Diana, wears (caftans, for instance, are hippie/feminist fashions and are therefore verboten). In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Seymour pulls Byron aside to have a talk with him, gruffly mentioning that his own father was unapproachable and that he didn’t want that kind of relationship with Byron, but it’s clear that Seymour is equally incapable of connecting with his family, try as he might (which is not to say that I found Seymour entirely sympathetic, because most of the time he just horrified and infuriated me). Byron thinks of Diana as the one who breathes warmth into their otherwise cold estate, but once the incident happens, it’s easier for him to see all the little cracks in her facade. She desperately tries to be the perfect wife/mother/society woman but is also obviously grappling with her own private struggles.
What surprised me most about Perfect was the simmering tension that Joyce maintained through most of the book. It made me anxious for all characters involved. Those who read Joyce’s last book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, will probably be familiar with the way Joyce sets the plot on a low simmer. Similarly, Perfect is slow-moving; so much of the plot is based on the naive plans of two eleven-year-old boys trying to rectify a horrible situation. But unlike Harold Fry, this is a darker book with a much more cataclysmic effect. It’s not a fast-paced book but it is a page-turner, and an elegantly composed one at that.
Perfect will be released on January 14, 2014 by Random House. The book is on tour right now, so see what other bloggers are saying about it. You can also enter to win a copy of this book (fill out form below).