Select one of the keywords
The Idea of Perfection    by Kate Grenville order for
Idea of Perfection
by Kate Grenville
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2003
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Books about Australia have always attracted interest around the world. Those who grew up reading Arthur Upfield mysteries, and classic Nevil Shute novels like A Town Like Alice, have long been fascinated by this faraway, exotic continent. Even in modern times, with instant communications around the world and cheaper airfares, Australia still seems to be a place apart.

Kate Grenville's fifth novel, The Idea of Perfection, will appeal to this audience. Winner of Britain's prestigous Orange prize, it is the story of a present day small town in New South Wales and the lonely and vulnerable souls inhabiting it. Karakarook is a town of 1374 people within driving distance of Sydney, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of a big city whose inhabitants don't know their neighbors. Everyone knows everyone else in Karakarook where (unlike in a larger city) one 'can not just pick out the good bits of life and avoid the others'.

Into this somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere come two strangers. Harley Savage is a big-boned, plain-spoken, middle-aged museum expert, sent from Sydney to help the town set up a heritage museum. Harley, having divorced two husbands and lost the third to suicide, has a self-described 'dangerous streak'. She is recovering from a mild heart attack and leery of emotional relationships in which she might 'damage' other people. Douglas Cheeseman is a socially awkward civil engineer sent by the transportation department to supervise the demolition of a picturesque, but rickety, old bridge and to construct a new one. He also has been wounded in life by a failed marriage to a woman who found him a 'bridge bore'.

Inevitably Harley and Douglas come into contact and the story of their fumbling and reluctant relationship forms the core of the book. Both are very aware of their perceived shortcomings and only slowly realize their own value. Harley, who grew up in a family of well-known artists, has always felt her own focus on textile art and job as a museum curator to be second class. Douglas, the namesake of a renowned war hero, feels inadequate and lacking in courage. However, the two slowly grow closer. At the onset of the tale, a stray dog attaches himself to Harley, but she only reluctantly gives him food and refuses to name him. As the book progresses, she slowly allows the dog more room in her life. Harley eventually realizes she can also allow Douglas room in her life, and that she is not dangerous to everyone.

In addition to Harley and Douglas there is another lonely soul, the banker's wife Felicity, already living in Karakarook. In a way, she is the most memorable character in the book. Felicity's life is an empty one, with little to occupy her time. Approaching 40, she is obsessed with retaining her youthful beauty which she believes to be her only value. So she rations smiles to avoid future wrinkles. However, her life takes a surprising turn when she falls for the local Chinese butcher. Grenville does a nice job of bringing the small dusty, fly-ridden town of Karakarook, on the edge of the bush, to life. She has created several unique characters. However, the book moves slowly in places, and the reader will get impatient with Harley and Douglas and wish they would get their acts together. This is probably realistic in life, but can get tiresome in a novel.

All in all though, readers (especially Australophiles) who want something different will welcome this unusual novel, The Idea of Perfection.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Contemporary books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews