Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001 (now the Baileys Women’s Prize), The Idea of Perfection is in fact a novel about human (and architectural) imperfection in its many guises. The book’s two central characters are about as removed from the idea of perfection as you could imagine. Douglas Cheeseman is a jug-eared, socially inept bridge engineer who suffers from debilitating vertigo, while Harley Savage is a “big rawboned” museum textiles consultant recovering from a heart attack and three failed marriages. As such, they make for improbable romantic leads, and yet the novel centres around the burgeoning romance between this unlikely pair.
Harley and Douglas have come to the tiny backwater town of Karakarook in NSW for very different reasons – Harley to help establish the Karakarook Pioneer Heritage Museum, and Douglas to pull down the old, warped Bent Bridge and erect a modern replacement. The novel is a study of awkwardness so extreme it at times makes for hilarious reading. Early on in the book, Harley rescues Douglas from a herd of inquisitive cows after Douglas’s tactic of being “as boring as possible” fails to make the bovines lose interest in him. Further on, their first date – to the “oily” tea-room at a scenic look-out point – is toe-curling in the extreme.
The people of Karakarook (population 1,374) are themselves as hotch potch a bunch as you could imagine. There is the old shopkeeper who refuses to sell a bucket from the window display, in case a future customer mistakenly believes the shop does not stock that colour. Felicity the bank manager’s wife rations her facial expressions, for fear that smiling too much may give her wrinkles. And Coralie Henderson works in the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, which sells padded satin coat hangers and crocheted glasses cases, and little else. The attention to detail which Grenville exhibits in creating the little world of Karakarook is second to none, and helps to make the setting and its inhabitants believable. We’ve all driven through a Karakarook at one point or another in our lives, perhaps stopping to fill up on fuel and a meat pie, and wondering idly what it might be like to live in such a place.
However, Grenville treads a careful line between making her characters unwittingly comical, and allowing them to descend into caricature. As with the best comedy, in amongst the humour lies a seam of tragedy, and it is the suffering the characters have endured in their previous lives which helps to make them well-rounded and plausible. Both Harley’s and Douglas’s past misfortunes are revealed to us through candid inner monologues, which help the characters avoid becoming merely objects of our ridicule.
The Idea of Perfection is an engaging, poignant, and funny novel, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I may only recently have discovered Kate Grenville‘s work, but I will be keen to read more of her.