What I Loved: The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

My reading of Kate Grenville’s 1999 novel, the one she says brought a little-known Australian author international recognition (it won Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, previously the Orange Prize), was a signifier of several new beginnings for me. It was a gift from a close friend as I was emigrating from London to live in Melbourne. This friend and I had shared a crush on Australia since we were at university together and, as we said goodbye, her simple act of giving me this book was suffused with meaning. I started reading it on the plane, marking the start of an adventure for my family, a literary crush on Kate Grenville and my newfound devotion to Australian fiction.

From the beginning I relished the company of the main characters, the aptly named Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman, who were destined for a pleasingly atypical romance. Spying out of the window of his room above a pub in the remote country town of Karakarook, Douglas first sees Harley as ‘a big rawboned plain person, tall and unlikely … Her head just came up out of the tee-shirt saying, Here I am, and who do you think you are?’ Meanwhile, ill-at-ease Douglas is a man who has suffered a wretched childhood because of jugged ears and an awkward face, ‘a man no one would look at twice’, who’s convinced himself he’s stopped caring but still quietly longs to be ‘another sort of man’.

Yet they become each other’s balance, slowly and awkwardly; while Douglas, an engineer, is in Karakarook to supervise the demolition of an old bridge, Harley is there to preserve the town’s history. The small-town setting is at once a microcosm, a place of oppressive heat and society, a barren landscape with nowhere to hide, but cleverly the only sort of place where a story like this, and characters like these, can find room to breathe. Grenville gently pokes fun at the detail of Karakarook, like the pub serving ‘corned beef with white sauce and three veg’, but she also makes it a refuge for these unhappy misfits.

Felicity Porcelline, the banker’s wife and former beauty who’s leading a far less exciting life than she’d planned, is a brilliant vehicle for what might be called ‘polite racism’. Suspecting that the local butcher, Freddy Chang, is deeply in love with her (and why wouldn’t he be, she’s a former Palmolive model) Felicity finds that her gut instincts and better judgement are at odds. ‘She was no racist, and wanted him to know that she did not count it against him, him being Chinese. The trouble was, not wanting to be thought racist always seemed to make her too friendly.’ To her surprise and confusion, Felicity’s brand of friendliness eventually extends itself to Freddy Chang’s trouser fly.

For its eye-opening setting (to this Brit at least), use of humour and stunning empathy, The Idea of Perfection has been a much-loved rite of passage. Life in a new country can leave you floundering, but Harley and Douglas reminded me that so too can the place you call home.

Emily Gale is a Children’s & YA Specialist at Readings Carlton, and a Children’s & YA writer the rest of the time.