Idea of Perfection
415 Pages, $24.95
Australian Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection
is a tangled tale of multitudinous imperfections that brings
together what must surely be the most awkward couple ever
to appear in fiction.
He is Douglas Cheeseman, a structural engineer so shy he can’t
look out a hotel window for fear that his motives will be
misinterpreted. She is Harley Savage, a great rawboned museum
curator who’s been through three husbands, the last of whom
dispatched himself while trying to cut off his head with an
elaborately rigged circular saw.
She has been sent to help the townspeople of Karakarook, New
South Wales (pop. 1374), organize a Heritage Museum in the
hope that it may attract tourists before the community withers
away altogether. He has been sent to tear down the town’s
one major historical artifact, the wooden Bent Bridge, and
replace it with modern concrete structure.
Needless to say, Karakarook itself is home to a number of
quirky characters, including a Chinese butcher who tries to
seduce everything in skirts with a tired old come-on line
about the aboriginal meaning of the word Karakarook.
Grenville is a dab hand at creating oddballs (Lilian of Lilian’s
Story; Joan of Joan Makes History, the horrible
Albion of Albion’s Story), but she usually places them
in urban settings. So it comes as a complete surprise to find
how beautifully she renders the sun-blasted, failing bush
town of Karakarook and its spectacular surrounding countryside.
Douglas, ever the engineer, observes the town’s deteriorating
storefronts from his squalid room at the Caledonian Hotel
(the letter D hanging upside down from its bottom screw):
here you could see how long it was since anything had had
any maintenance, except the big shiny Coke sign along the
awning of the Mini-Mart. All the fancy decorations were rough
with paint that had cracked and weathered into a kind of oatmeal.
Something had taken root in the droopy bit of one of the swags
of flowers on the closed Karakarook Bakery . . . Grass sprouted
all along the gutter, like a fringe that needed cutting, and
one of the pointed urn things had fallen off the façade of
the shop below him . . . . In the presence of so much sky,
the attempt at grandeur was a mistake. Up beyond the flimsy
little shops the hills were very close, very solid. They were
a structure of another kind altogether. Up there, dark timeless
pelts of bush folded themselves over the curves of the land.
Air moved in stately tides. Clouds made large bold gestures
in the sky.”
Both Douglas and Harley love their work and look at the world
with those eyes. When Douglas carefully examines the old bridge,
he sees the shreds of 100-year-old bark still clinging to
the uprights, the joints “slotted in snugly against each other,”
the bolt heads countersunk “to get it all as tight as a piece
of cabinet work. True was the word carpenters used.
It was as if they thought there was something moral about
Harley, a textiles expert who makes museum-quality monochrome
quilts, sees exactly the same bridge as a “quaint, clumsy
thing, a clutter of primitive timbers wedged against each
other into crude simple joints. Where each horizontal met
a vertical, each had had a piece removed so they were locked
tight together. It was like two people holding hands.” But
then a design begins to emerge, of the bridge as it might
look if “you reduced it to its essence: simple squares and
rectangles, simple lights and darks, arranged in a way that
was not as simple as it seemed,” and she starts to construct
a new quilt.
Both Harley and Douglas are the disappointing offspring of
famous parents. Harley’s entire family are famous artists
who regard her patchwork, despite its being in major collections,
as “just craft.” Douglas’ war-hero father went down with his
plane in World War II, making it possible for all his men
to bail out. But Douglas secretly knows “that the men in the
Lancaster had not needed courage so much as someone with a
bit of mechanical expertise. Someone who understood jammed
pins. An engineer, for example.”
Much to Harley’s annoyance, a stray dog attaches itself to
her, and although the author makes the poor beast carry heavy
symbolic baggage, this excellent dog—easily one of the best
in literature—does so with convincing reality. “The dog did
not seem to realise she could be having another heart attack.
It came up and stood in front of her, panting up cheerfully
as if nothing was the matter. Then it jerked its head around
to snap at a fly and collapsed suddenly on its haunches, scratching
convulsively behind its ear. Hair and dust flew out, each
speck lit up radiantly by the sun.” But Grenville is good
at all kinds of creatures, whether cows, horses or birds:
“Outside somewhere, a crow made a long agonised noise like
someone being slowly strangled.”
Humor abounds in the novel, from social satire to a Monty
Python-type routine where Harley tries to buy a plastic pail
and the ancient shopkeeper won’t sell her one of six display
buckets because some other shopper might want that color and
not know it was available if it weren’t on display.
There are flaws in the novel. Despite Harley’s clumsy social
gaffes, we see her creating her quilt, learning to deal with
the locals, and accomplishing her mission with some success.
Douglas, however, despite his obvious joy in engineering,
never demonstrates even faintly what we must believe is his
real competence, except in his care of food-poisoned Harley.
A subplot involving the unrelievedly shallow perfectionist
Felicity is too broad, although her husband does become a
movingly three-dimensional character at the end. But Grenville’s
lushly detailed description sweeps you past all obstacles
with the power of the ancient flood that bent Karakarook’s
historical bridge. Winner of Britain’s prestigious Orange
Prize in 2001, this novel richly deserves a broad American