Two boys, two seconds, and all that came after
Timing is everything in this sentimental but very loveable book, says Elena Seymenliyska
There probably isn't a book group in the country that hasn't laughed and wept over The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012). Rachel Joyce's first novel, about a pensioner who walks across England to say goodbye to a dying friend, was a book you wanted to press into the hands of others, and then sit watching as they read, so you could bask in its heart-warming glow a while longer. So her second novel has quite a hard act to follow.
Perfect opens in June 1972, in England. Byron is 11 and he is terrified because, later that month, in order to bring the clocks back into line with the movement of the Earth, two seconds will be added to time. "Two seconds are huge," he tells his mother Diana. "It's the difference between something happening and something not happening . . . it's very dangerous."
But Diana doesn't seem concerned. Her eyes bright, her skirt pressed, her hair blow-dried, she just smiles and tells him to drink up his Sunquick.
She is the sort of mother whose hair looks like a golden halo when she sleeps, who makes other women "look both oversized and underprepared". She is, in short, perfect.
No wonder Byron's best friend James is in love with her. "Elle est la plus belle mère," he says in the boys' language of choice when things are too dull or too difficult to share in English.
Byron and James have plenty more occasions to speak in French after Diana takes a shortcut one day on the way to school. She drives her new Jaguar through the local council estate exactly as Byron sees the second hand on his watch moving backwards.
The consequences are momentous, every bit as earth-shattering as Byron feared. In a matter of weeks, he is reduced to making his own breakfast and his mother to spending her days in an armchair, clinking the ice in her glass.
Perfect has a second storyline, set in the present day, and its chapters alternate with those of 1972. Jim lives in a camper van on the edge of a new estate and works at a supermarket café, a world familiar from Harold Fry's pilgrimage across England. The heaving shopping centres, the neon-lit interiors, are also part of a world where surprising acts of kindness take place.
But who is Jim? Why does he live in a van? And how is he connected to Byron, James and the extra two seconds of 1972?
This mystery drives the plot, but its relentless workings can distract from the more lingering pleasures of a character such as Diana. If there is a flaw in Perfect, it is that the novel tries to do too much, just like a mother aiming at perfection.
Yet Diana herself is faultless. She is to Perfect what Harold Fry was to Unlikely: a fully rounded hero, someone to fall in love with and argue about, cherish and admonish, as though she were real. Rachel Joyce has been criticised for being sentimental; if only more novels were 'bad' enough to move us like this one.