The one-hour-20-minute review I was boasting about yesterday:
The Idea of Perfection; by Kate Grenville
I was arm-twisted by my books editor into writing this review on a two-hour deadline, so it was just as well that only hours earlier I had met author Kate Grenville for a profile, during her literary tour to India. The interview provided nice insights into the genesis of this novel, which, against all expectations, won Britain’s Orange Prize in 2001.
The Idea of Perfection opens with a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci: "An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength." Grenville came across this quote while researching bridges for a project she was working on; she was, in her own words, "struck by how well it applies to human relationships, where two people, each with his or her own flaws, come together in such a way that one’s weaknesses are absorbed by the other’s strengths." This idea provided Grenville with the seeds of a story that would have a real (timber) bridge at its centre but would also be about metaphorical bridges; about the ways in which relationships develop between the unlikeliest of people.
It’s to the author’s credit that she takes this premise -- which, in theory, is vaguely interesting but not, one might think, enough to build an entire novel on -- and executes it as well as she does. Characterisation is the great strength of her book, which gives us (at least) three completely believable people (and one very believable dog). There are, first, the ‘arches’, Douglas Cheeseman and Harley Savage, who come to the small town of Karakarook for conflicting reasons: he is an engineer, here to supervise the tearing down of an old bridge that has outworn its usefulness, she a museum curator who is advocating its value as a tourist attraction.
Douglas and Harley are natural adversaries but, as they discover to their surprise, there are ways in which they complement each other. They have unhappy pasts and are outcasts in different ways, misfits both in this setting as well as in the cities they have come from. Douglas can’t relate to other people ("he did not know how you got to be a Chook Henderson. He had known them in the schoolyard. It seemed to come naturally to them") while Harley spends most of the book in the company of a mongrel who she can’t shake off.
The third protagonist is Felicity Porcelline (Grenville has a proclivity for Dickensian tongue-in-cheek-ness when it comes to naming her characters) and her story is in some ways the most interesting of all, providing as it does a counterpoint to Douglas and Harley’s. Felicity is a banker’s wife with an idea of perfection that goes beyond mere fastidiousness: her floor is clean enough to eat off, she never forgets to moisturise before going to bed and, hilariously, when cleaning her kitchen, she remembers that "a cockroach can live on a grain of sugar for a whole month. That was how careful you had to be." And even when she transgresses propriety by having an affair with the local butcher, her first observation is: "it was an interesting fact that a naked person did not look untidy."
Grenville worked as a documentary film editor for a few years in the 1970s and claims that this had an effect on her writing: "I still write out individual scenes first and then draw a story out from them." This shows most clearly in the chapters involving Felicity, whose story at times seems removed from the central narrative but who in fact provides it with an important reference point. "If you have two things that are independently strong, they don’t need each other," says the author. But Felicity’s strength, her self-dependence, is also her crutch, and in a sense she is worse off than the "weak" Douglas and Harley.
The author’s grounding in film comes across at other times too, particularly in the way she shifts between her characters’ viewpoints, and her strikingly visual descriptions -- the image of footprints in damp sand near the bridge, for instance. There’s nothing dramatically or obviously Australian about her writing; the style is elegant and lucid (for comparison, the other Australian novel I was reading this week was her fellow literary tourist Tim Winton’s cult classic Cloudstreet, which is full of the earthiest colloquialisms). But in the novel’s concerns with the conflict between the past and the present, there is a strong sense of a country with an ambivalent attitude to its own chequered history -- of a land trying to get on with the business of being brisk and modern while at the same time struggling with the shadow of its past. This is nicely encapsulated in Douglas’s first reaction on seeing the old Bent Bridge: "Knocking down old timber bridges was not his favourite job. He liked them, the innocent clumsy structure of them, the way the wood developed personality in its old age, although as a professional he could see how inefficient and over-engineered their structure was."
Both Australia and India have a large body of writing that has attempted -- sometimes self-consciously, but often with success -- to shrug off the colonial legacy and find its own distinct voice. For that reason, among others, there is much in Oz literature that should be of interest to Indian readers, and hopefully the recent launch of high-profile Australian novels here will open the floodgates. Grenville’s gentle, perceptive book about people struggling with themselves and with their heritage is a very welcome entry point.