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Down Underdogs
By Margaret Black

The Idea of Perfection
By Kate Grenville
Viking, 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):

“From 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 it.”

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 readership.

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