Cannonball Read 5, Book 97: Perfect by Rachel Joyce

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There’s something about titling your book Perfect that is just asking for trouble. Whole reviews could be written about the book that only focus on how misguided or otherwise the choice of title was. When you’re following up a debut like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry then it’s really brave to essentially hand the critics a stick with which to beat you. But of course, Joyce needn’t worry. She writes like a dream.

Leap seconds have been added to time periodically and irregularly since two of them were first added in 1972. That first addition is the crux of Joyce’s gorgeous second novel. Childhood friends Byron and James are obsessed with this addition, when it will happen, whether they’ll know it’s happening, if it will be on the news that it happened, and so on and so forth, as only the young and eternally inquisitive can be. But the addition of those two seconds upend Byron’s perfect life, setting into a motion a series of events that will leave him entirely unravelled. But was time really to blame?

Joyce really knows how to nail metaphors and similes. Perfect is all but overflowing with them, and each one is immaculate, carefully worded and precisely placed. “She offered a series of waves, like polishing an invisible window. In return, the women gave tight smiles that appeared to stick to their mouths and hurt” is just one example of hundreds that made me silently awestruck by her way with words. This book also captures the truth that when you’re a child, you believe everything in your family is normal. Byron’s home life is clearly anything but, however he tells it as if it’s all just fine. That disparity is brilliantly and troublingly conveyed.

That said, there are some plot elements which caused a raised eyebrow, mostly revolving around an organ concert. I struggled to believe that events would have gone quite that far. Proper cynics will probably harp on about the coincidence at the end of the book as well, but to those hard hearted souls, I say pish. The final pages of this novel are just so warm and rich and beautiful it made me forgive any and all of its teeny tiny flaws.

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 18: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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The debut novel from Rachel Joyce, who’s written many radio plays and the odd TV adaptation, was something of a sensation when it was published last year. Glowing reviews poured in, it ended up on the longlist for the Booker Prize, suddenly everyone was talking about Harold Fry.

Initially, I was reluctant to read it. Not because it sounded rubbish or anything, but because it all struck a little too close to home. My father lost his battle to cancer just 8 months ago, several years earlier than he should have done. So did I really want to read a book that deals so closely with that subject? Turns out, I did. And what a wonderful read it was.

Harold Fry, unwanted as a child, unfulfilled as an adult, is lonely. Retired and stuck in a loveless marriage, one day he receives a letter out of the blue from an old work colleague he hasn’t thought of in years. The wonderfully named Queenie Hennessy is dying of cancer in a hospice and wanted to contact Harold to say goodbye. Harold writes a response and goes out to post it. A chance conversation makes him decide to walk to the hospice and see Queenie instead. Only problem there is the hospice is 627 miles away. Harold has no phone, no map, no change of clothes and no overall plan. But he’s convinced Queenie will live if he walks, and so he walks.

And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage. Along his journey, Harold meets a huge array of characters, becomes a media sensation, attracts a following, loses his mind and generally has QUITE a time of things. But all that is merely window dressing for what is really a memory novel. As he walks, Harold reflects on his whole life, from his parental abandonment, his job at a brewery, through to his marriage, his son and the events which drove a wedge between him and his frosty wife Maureen.

This is a beautifully written and utterly absorbing book, which could have been a terribly mawkish sentimental misfire in less skilled hands. Harold’s moving history unfolds in bits and pieces as his story moves forward at an ever increasing pace. When all the gaps are filled in and his pilgrimage is complete, it would be a very hard heart indeed that won’t crack just a little bit. Overwhelmingly emotional, quite beautiful and ultimately uplifting, this is absolutely worth every single one of the plaudits afforded it.