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Monday, 7 August 2017

The Idea of Perfection - Kate Grenville (1999)








Kate Grenville is a well-known and respected Australian author who has been publishing novels since 1985. Grenville hit significant cultural pay-dirt with her novel The Secret River (2005) that offered an engaging and visceral depiction of early European settlement in New South Wales. The Idea of Perfection was also successful, winning Grenville the Orange Prize in 2001, impressing the judges with its eccentric Australian setting and portrayal of the development of an awkward love affair between two damaged individuals. Previously I read The Secret River as part of the library’s book club. I was impressed and the novel was also generally well received by the members. The Idea of Perfection, however, was a major disappointment and polarized my book club members into two camps, those who absolutely loved it and those who loathed the very pages the words were printed on.

The Idea of Perfection is set in the fictional New South Wales town of Karakarook, which is the kind of Australian small town that writers love to portray; the town itself is like a lovable character and the locals are eccentric and quite one-eyed in their opinions. Into this environment comes Harley Savage, a heritage expert hired to put the town on the cultural map in an attempt to turn the financial fortunes of the town around, and Douglas Cheeseman, a vertigo suffering engineer who is charged with replacing an old wooden bridge with a steel and concrete bridge. Although the two protagonists come from very different worlds they have in common a high degree of social awkwardness and family backgrounds that left them with a sense of inadequacy.

The novel’s thematic focus is, not surprisingly, the concept of perfection, or more precisely that perfection is inherently subjective or even an illusory notion. Municipal powers view the town’s old wooden bridge as both an unsafe eyesore and vastly inferior to a modern steel and concrete bridge, yet the wooden bridge stands as an example of the brilliant craftsmanship of another era and is ‘perfect’ in its own way. Both Douglas and Harley view themselves as wholly imperfect, yet the reality is that they are perfect for each other. The theme of perfection is explored in a far more interesting way via two of the novel’s minor characters, Felicity Porcelline and Alfred Chang. Felicity is the bank manager’s wife and she is obsessed with the eradication of imperfection, down the extent of only allowing herself a couple of smiles a day lest she create unwanted wrinkles on her pretty face. Her affair with Alfred, the town’s Chinese butcher, is one of the novel’s few highlights and in fact I found myself wishing that they were the main characters, rather than the predominately one dimensional characters of Douglas and Harley.

As with Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015), Grenville’s novel suffers from stylistic heavy-handedness. The absolute awkwardness of Harley or Douglas is emphasized at every opportunity, repeated again and again to an intolerably irritating degree. Each time either of these two characters appeared I found myself cringing and desiring the company of Felicity and Alfred instead. Any humour or exploration of human psychology was hampered by the overwhelming irritation generated by Grenville’s self-conscious prose style. Grenville is a fine enough writer with a long and successful career behind her, but unfortunately and perhaps ironically The Idea of Perfection, to my subjective judgement at least, is far from perfect. Any critical assessment of literature involves both subjective and objective elements and prior to the book club meetings to discuss the novel I wondered whether it was one of those books that just wasn’t for me, however many of the members had the same reaction, but some also enjoyed both the characters and what the novel had to say thematically. Sometimes a novel has value precisely because it is divisive; such novels can get people thinking deeply about the nature of narrative, and that in itself is valuable, even if the novel is, in the end, found wanting.