Australian Women's Book Review

ISSN 1033-9434    
Editor:  Barbara Brook
Contributing Assistant Editor:  Katie Hughes
Photomontage:  Set in Stone, Adele Flood
Volume 12, 2000

After the Dark – the Light

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville, Pan Macmillan Australia, 1999, pb., 401 pp.

Reviewed by Lesley Walter

The central idea of this novel is summed up in the epigraph by Leonardo da Vinci: “An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength”. The arch becomes the inspirational image for the love story that unfolds between Grenville's two protagonists, Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman. Harley is a patchwork quilt specialist who has been invited to the country town of Karakarook in order to help the townsfolk establish a heritage museum. Harley is plain, awkward, middle-aged, and in a state of what the local bank manager's wife, Felicity Porcelline, would no doubt regard as having “let herself go”. She is also a loner – haunted by a tragedy in her past for which she blames herself. Douglas is the equally fallible “gentleman” with whom Grenville has her “heroine” fall in love – an engineer, who has come to Karakarook to knock down the old stone bridge that the Heritage Committee wants to restore and retain as a tourist attraction. These two characters provide, then, both the ground for the novel's conflict as well as the grist for its love story. Douglas is a mirror-image of Harley. While she's tough on the exterior but weak as water inside, he's all jelly on the outside, but as strong as a rock on the inside:

[Douglas] had never minded, before, being such a neutral sort of man. But watching Harley Savage stride purposefully, gesticulate decisively, laugh in that big confident way, he wished he could find it in himself to be a different and less invisible kind of man.

As Grenville appears to have discovered in the process of writing this book, the coming together of these two unlikely people is “just a matter of geometry: an equal and opposite force. It was what a person needed when they could not balance by themselves any more”. The quilting motif is used to further reinforce this idea. People complement one another, Grenville suggests, in precisely the same way as the lights and the darks offset each other in a patchwork quilt, or as “the strength of concrete, the flexibility of steel” meld to form “the perfect marriage” in the construction of a bridge. As Douglas perceives:

He was flimsy, trussed around, bolted stiffly together into an ugly rigid muddle of members to disguise the basic weakness of the structure. But [Harley] had both the strength of the concrete and the flexibility of the reinforcement.

Grenville admits that The Idea of Perfection took her completely by surprise, for while she regards her previous books as dark and not at all “heart-warming”, this had presented itself as a simple love story. That this book had also demanded to be set in a country town (even though Grenville had spent only a couple of hours, in transit, in country towns before!) had been no less of a surprise. In it, Grenville explores the false iconography of Australians as “bushies”, since for most Australians, this image is a completely fraudulent one. As a kid at Kogarah Public School, Douglas had learnt that “An Australian was a man on the back of a horse, rounding up sheep or cracking a whip at a lot of cows”. Yet, as Grenville points out, most kids had never seen a sheep or cow except at the Show, so “had to learn how to be Australian off the blackboard”. Grenville portrays a style of country-town life that hasn't been written about much since greater urbanisation, lifting the domestic into the realm of the “mystical”. There are “glories” here that are worth recording. She neither idealises nor romanticises this existence, nor is she condescending, scathing or snide. Rather, she achieves a balance by presenting things through the eyes of Harley and Douglas – outsiders like herself – for whom a visit to a country town becomes every bit as exotic and every bit as foreign as a trip overseas. Readers can't help but be struck by the representational exactness and the comic familiarity of certain scenes, such as the one in which Douglas confronts his “Set Breakfast”, or when Harley and Douglas visit the Mount Olympus Panorama Café.

Like Grenville's Dark Places and Lilian's Story, The Idea of Perfection also explores the role of gender in self-definition, sharing, with those earlier books, the author's preoccupation with the influence of family in the shaping of male and female subjectivity. Harley's sister, Celeste, had been their parents' idea of perfection, so that, as a child, Harley had always felt painfully inadequate in comparison. In recognition of the fact that she couldn't live up to the “beautiful baby” she once was, Harley had tried to redefine herself, insisting (once she was old enough) on being called “Harley” instead of the misnomer, “Pixie”. In the same way, “undistinguished, invisible fawn-coloured” Douglas “had never felt his name was his own”, never having been able to live up to its heroic associations. Conscious of a socially constructed “norm” from which they both feel painfully excluded, Harley and Douglas are trapped (at least at the novel's outset) by and within their own negative self-images.

But The Idea of Perfection is a gentler, funnier, more optimistic book than Grenville's earlier works, much less concerned with the evil machinations of patriarchy. It is, too, her least subversive book. I've heard Grenville say that when she began writing, the only way to deal with her anger at men's treatment of women was to turn it into a dark fury. By comparison, Jane Austen's irony, she later realised, stemmed from that very same outrage. Now, she says, she loves to read funny books herself – has “had enough of solemn, literary things”. In Dark Places, Grenville suggested that Albion Singer was, in some ways, as much a victim as Lilian of the phallocentric culture he represented – filled with a longing to make human contact, yet rendered incapable (by his misguided sense of manhood) of knowing the “words a man might … use, to ask for what he needed”. In The Idea of Perfection, however, both Harley and Douglas happily escape such “agonies of self-engrossment”. While being alone had proved “safe” for each of them up until now, in Karakarook, aloneness suddenly seems like a “life sentence” to both of them. Harley's moment of epiphany comes when she realises that she is not the dangerous monster she'd thought, but “only the most ordinary of criminals, a human being”. So, too, Douglas senses “a feeling that anything might be possible ... [is] no longer hunched under the weight of his own shortcomings”.

Dark Places was the first of Grenville's novels in which she adopted a male persona, cleverly subverting the ideas Albion espoused in that book through their very outrageousness. In The Idea of Perfection, Grenville similarly “gets into Douglas' head”, but here, the narrative unfolds through the voices of a number of other characters as well. This book is motivated not so much by sexual politics, as by a genuine interest in and a compassion for the individual, whatever his/her gender. As much as anything, it's Douglas' and Harley's honesty with themselves (in contrast, say, to Albion's characteristic self-deception) that endears the two of them, in all their flawed humanity, to the reader.

Although conventional marriage comes under criticism in her earlier work, Grenville does valorise male-female relationships. The Idea of Perfection appears to be confidently based on the belief that supportive heterosexual partnerships are worthwhile. It appears to be very much a novel written by someone who has defined herself, now, in relation to the opposite gender. It is a novel of self-conscious, wryly humourous self-acceptance, as well as of empathy for, and (often comic) understanding of, others.

There is something of Grenville herself in Harley. Just as the latter is comfortable wearing a t-shirt with a torn shoulder seam, I've heard Grenville claim that at the age of forty, she, herself, felt personally liberated. She realised she needn't wear smart but uncomfortable shoes any longer; rather, she could choose to be as “frumpish” as she liked. This, Grenville suggests, is one of the rich rewards of attaining middle-age. The Idea of Perfection becomes a kind of celebration, then, of one's middle years, of “the fan of wrinkles raying out from the corner of each eye”, “the creased neck”, the crepey, sun-spotted chest, the lines like bracelets around one's mouth. Grenville contrasts the comfortable acceptance of the aging process in Harley with the relentless pressure to stay young that drives Felicity. Obsessively self-indulgent, Felicity is unable to look up or down for the fear of creating lines (!), and has to resort to popping into the bathroom between smiles, in order to repair any damage done to the corners of her mouth. And the country-town setting of the novel further reinforces this idea. The attitudes exhibited by the townsfolk of Karakarook seem somehow akin to those acquired or developed in one's middle years. The following passage says as much about the state of being middle-aged, as it says about the character of country folk:

But out here, she could see people went by different rules. You did not just pick out the best bits of life. You took the whole lot, the good and the bad. You forgave people for being who they were, and you hoped they would be able to forgive you. Now and again you were rewarded with the small pleasure of being able to laugh, not uproariously but genuinely, at a small witticism offered by someone who was usually a bore.

While “perfection” is a myth, the novel is about people haunted by the idea of it – about the mad, neurotic dead-ends we get into, trying to be perfect, or worse still perhaps, pretending to be. As in Grenville's earlier work, mirrors and photographs feature largely as images of entrapment. While in Lilian's Story, Lilian realized: “Without a mirror it is possible to be anyone”, in this novel both Harley's and Douglas' self-perception has never developed beyond what they perceive to be others' perception of them – an image that the mirror has always tended to reinforce. It's not surprising, then, that Douglas has “spent his life avoiding his reflection in shop windows”. On the other hand, Felicity is trapped (like Albion) by her own narcissistic gaze. So, too, the image of Douglas' mother was, we are told, “the engineered perfection of expensive foundation garments … of … smart little suits and … sharp narrow shoes”, while Douglas' ex-wife, Marjorie, would never wear a t-shirt, because she felt it “didn't do anything for her”. And a further “idea of perfection” that the novel ironises is the manner in which the dead are idealised and romanticised. Douglas rightly reasons: “Alive, his father would have been just another irritable man putting off mowing the lawn, making the bathroom smell of fart, taking wrong turnings on the way to Katoomba. Dead, he could do no wrong”.

Having always concerned herself with what keeps people apart, Grenville says she found it both a pleasure and a comfort to discover that what drives people apart can also be the very thing that pulls them together. As readers, we register Grenville's own real sense of surprise when Harley perceives how, in a patchwork quilt, “a dull piece could become a jewel next to certain other pieces …. And it was a kind of magic, the way no piece was either a light or dark by itself. Any of them could be a light or a dark, depending on what it was next to”. Like the weak half span of a bridge, each patchwork square is, when “separated from the rest…just a fraying scrap…just a limp dingy thing”. This quilting motif can be seen, too, as a metaphor for the trajectory Grenville's own work has taken – moving from dark to light from just one book to the next.

I've read all Grenville's novels and have heard her speak on several occasions. I'm always touched by her seeming artlessness, warmth, and generosity of spirit, as I am in awe, too, of her formidable gift with words, her sharp insights and her truly scintillating sense of humour. The Idea of Perfection showcases all these qualities. This book is moving, it is hilarious, it is absolutely beautifully written. It is, quite simply, the embodiment of “my idea of perfection”.

Lesley Walter is a Sydney poet and reviewer whose poetry collection, 'watermelon baby', was launched by fip in November.


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