Last week I was thinking about taking Kate Grenville’s book, The Idea of Perfection back to the library without finishing it. But I gave it another go and this time it interested me enough to finish it. I thought her book The Secret River was brilliant, one of the best books I read last year and I also loved Sarah Thornhill, but I didn’t think The Idea of Perfection was as good as either of these, which surprised me as it won the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction. That’s not to say I didn’t like it because I did, just not as much as the other two books.
I think the reason is that for the most part it lacked the drama of the other books and I found the beginning very slow. The title indicates the theme of the book with the characters all falling short of the impossible aim of perfection. Set in Karakarook, in New South Wales the two main characters are Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer who has come to pull down a quaint old bent bridge before it falls down and Harley Savage, who has come to advise the residents how to promote their inheritance. They both know they are far from perfect. On the other hand there is Felicity Porcelline, the local bank manager’s wife who thinks she is perfect and everything she does is aimed at perfection, which she doesn’t achieve either – just the opposite, in fact.
It’s quite a touching tale as Douglas and Harley, both middle aged and with failed marriages behind them, are shy awkward characters and although they are attracted to each other for most of the novel they find it almost impossible to express their feelings. They are both outsiders, neither fitting easily either into their own families or within society. Underlying their relationship is the conflict about the dilapidated bridge – should it be restored or replaced with a modern bridge? And just what should the proposed Pioneer Heritage Museum contain? – heirlooms, jewellery, silver teapots and lace christening robes, or the things Harley thinks are right – the really old shabby things that show how people used to live, the old bush-quilts made from old clothes, for example.
It’s the setting that really stands out – the dusty little country town in a valley in New South Wales, the hillsides, the river and the ‘huge pale sky, bleached with the heat.‘ Kate Grenville paints a picture of the town and its surrounding countryside with such detail that you can feel the heat and dust and see the buildings, the houses clinging to the hillside, tilting, patched and stained with rusting roofs and the dirt road leading out of Karakarook.
The strange thing is that after I finished reading it this book has grown on me as it were. And now I’ve written about I think I appreciate it more than I did whilst reading it. It’s precise writing, full of detail about the people and the places within its pages and also full of thoughts about love, loneliness, relationships and the impossibility of perfection.