There are three distinct realms in the conception of time: the subjective present, which cannot be contained and therefore may not actually exist; the past, which has already happened, so it ceases to be; and the future, which hovers away at a distance, never actualizing into being.
This notion of time as manifold becomes essential when reading Rachel Joyce’s new novel Perfect, a dark follow-up to her highly celebrated debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The novel begins in the summer months of 1972, in the English countryside setting of Cranham Moor. Byron Hemmings, an imaginative boy of 11, becomes anxious when he learns that two leap seconds are going to be added to time to balance it with the irregular movement of the earth. Byron insists it isn’t safe. “Two seconds are huge,” he tells his mother. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.”
Byron’s mother, Diana, doesn’t have the time to worry about something as insignificant as mere seconds. She operates her life with precision, expertly managing the minutiae of motherhood and domesticity in a uniform of slim skirts and pointy heels. Yet her entire life centers around caring for her children and preparing for weekend visits from her estranged husband Seymour, who keeps her confined in Cranham Manor, their Georgian home that sits in the isolation of “winds, sky and earth.”
Byron has a habit of watching his mother closely, and imagines her mind as a “series of tiny inlaid drawers with jeweled handles so delicate his fingers would struggle to get a grip.” She makes everything looks so effortless, but that is largely because her life is an act that she assumes with the same efficiency as her tightly guarded wristwatch. Yet her perfection, like time, cannot be contained, or even controlled.
This spilling of time becomes palpable on the day that Byron believes he witnesses the addition of the two seconds. Diana is running late getting Byron and his sister to school, so she decides to take a shortcut down Digby Road, a decrepit social-housing project. When her Jaguar swerves under the heavy morning mist, it isn’t clear to Diana what has happened, yet Byron is sure that the two seconds are responsible for setting off a chain of events that destroy more than one life.
In the present day, we find Jim, a man so crippled by his OCD that he must enact a series of rituals to feel any sense of ease with the world. Jim has spent most of his life in Beasley Hill, a mental hospital that became a sanctuary, protecting him from the passing of time. Readers will wonder how Jim is connected to Byron Hemmings and the two seconds. And while the mystery of Jim is eventually discovered in a revelation as shocking as the truth about Harold’s son David in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the tedious pacing of Jim’s story feels like a series of road blocks disrupting the more absorbing story of Byron and Diana.
The repercussions of single moments reverberate throughout Perfect. And by the end of the novel, past, present and future surge together, as time loses all sense of meaning for both Byron and Jim. Yet it is Diana who loses the most in Perfect. Joyce builds up her ivory tower only to tear it down, revealing the shell of woman that is a victim of time and the limitations of English class structures.
In a note to readers, the author confesses that the novel had initially come out of her own feelings of helplessness. After the birth of her third child, Joyce struggled with the demands of motherhood, reaching a shortfall between meeting the needs of her children, and her will to keep up appearances. With Perfect, Joyce not only questions whether true perfection can ever actually exist, her exploration of its causal relationship with time exposes both as liquid concepts that, as hard as one can try, cannot be contained.
Safa Jinje is a writer and editor living in Toronto.