A review of Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection

In the tentative groping of the characters for meaning, the articulation of silence, Grenville creates a story which is a pleasure to read.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most accessible writers. She has her own web site, a publicly available e-mail address, provides her own novel excerpts and even discussion questions for students. She has written two books about the writing process and continues to teach creative writing. She is also very open about the way in which her books come about, the processes of writing, eager to debunk the concept of writing as an elitest game or as being somehow magic. Her open involvement helps the reader understand both the process behind the words and the way in which a novel is constructed, much like the subtle narrative voice in The Idea of Perfection, which takes us behind the façade of her characters. Appearances in this book are only the tip of an iceberg, a very small part of the picture of who her characters are.

The Idea of Perfection is a quick and easy to read novel, the narrative propelling the reader forward towards its conclusion. There is no major twist in the tale. Douglas and Harley, the main characters struggling with their self-images, end up together and Felicity, the shallow ex-Palmolive girl who has internalised the pages of a woman’s magazine, ends up in the arms of the butcher, their foreplay a series of photographic images. The condemned heritage bridge, distorted and small, but beautiful in its imperfection and craftmanship, is saved. The stray dog is taken in. Both Douglas and Harley find happiness of a sort. However the story is not all sweetness and light. The themes are big ones: of superficiality and depth, of love and life and what gives life meaning, and most importantly, the ideas that people have of perfection in their lives; the search for something perfect, real, meaningful.

In Felicity’s case, the perfection is the superficial perfection found in women’s magazines; a white lily (the flower of death), a bleached and lemon scented floor so clean you can eat off it, or even the sort of shallow symbolism like that found in the Mount Olympus Panorama Café: “Gaudy flowers for Switzerland, A glass canal for Holland, Grenadier Guards for Britian” cliches that only tap the surface of things. For Douglas, perfection involves something deeper – the beauty of structure; something true rather than something unflawed, like the neat bit of squaring done on the timbers of each joint on the bridge “so each one slotted in snugly against the other”;, or the strength in Harley’s back: “She had both the strength of concrete and the flexibility of the reinforcement. The greater the load, the stronger she would get, standing planted solidly in bedrock.”

Throughout the book, communications are tortured as people’s thoughts reveal the awkwardness, the sharpness, the fear, “words never connecting, years of the obvious always being spoken, the important things never mentioned” (217). Our false idea of things are revealed in the pain they cause those who don’t fit, as in the idea of the “typical Aussie bloke”, the typical country town, the typical city person, the typical Engineer, the typical woman, widow, dog, relationship, all shown up as cliches, forcing people into roles they don’t belong to; artificial lives. But there are moments of perfection such as the “grimace of tenderness” between Chook and Coralie, the fluid medium of the darkness which frees Douglas, the moment of clarity under the water, the “serene and silent amber world”, which frees Harley, or the unspoken understanding between Harley and Douglas as she, “dizzy with the fear of it”, communicates what happened to her third husband. There are times when I felt that the story was a little too pat, that the love between Harley and Douglas developed too neatly, or that the moral was too obvious, but in the tentative groping of the characters for meaning, the articulation of silence, Grenville creates a story which is a pleasure to read. The backdrop of Karakarook is both familiar as a typical Australian country town and beautiful in its simplicity and wisdom, the wisdom of an old patchwork quilt or a handmade ladle.