The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize in 2001. I love this cover photograph and I was left wondering if it was in fact the initial inspiration for the story, since it shows a bridge exactly as she describes it in the book; you can even see the shifting of the timbers as it has been twisted by the river.
This is the story of Harley and Douglas, both landing up in Karakarook, apparently to end up on opposite sides of an argument within the local community. Douglas is coming to knock down an old bridge, Harley to assist with creating a museum and she gets involved with the campaign to save the bridge. So here are two people, very much outside their comfort zones, struggling with the harsh outback environment, who's chance encounters bring them together. Running alongside we have an alternate story, of Felicity Porcelline and her rather strange obsessive behaviour. The two are separate, though they happen at the same time and in the same place and the people in them interact. Maybe it is partly about the isolating effect of the environment; Felicity is an incomer and doesn't quite fit in, though I think her problems are a bit more deep-seated than that.
The book is full of wonderful quirky characters, people who are almost always created it seems in very challenging environments, life is hard so it tends to toughen up the people. I loved the scene where Harley tries to buy a bucket but the old man in the shop will not sell her one from the window display, an extreme case of being stuck in your ways and resistant to any kind of outside influence. And then there is the oppressive heat, and the impact it has on people's lives. It is as if locals know how to live with it. Their environment dominates their lives, and it is so vast that they have to let it:
"It was another planet out here. The city became merely a dream, or as distant as something you had read about in a book: something you could remember, or not, as you pleased. The country made the city and all its anxieties seem small and silly, and yet when you had been too long in the city you forgot how the sun moving through its path was a long slow drama, and the way the sky was always there, big and easy-going." (p.32)
And being in a strange place makes you perceive things in strange ways:
"She thought they must be frogs because what else could they be? But frogs were supposed to croak. This was not so much a croak as a sound like someone hitting a cardboard box with a stick at irregular intervals. Sometimes several people with several sticks hit different sized cardboard boxes all together. It did not sound like frogs, but it must be, unless there were people out there, hitting sticks against cardboard boxes in the darkness." (p.44)
Harvey seems to have partly chosen her isolation, is running away from closeness after the traumatising suicide of her third husband, though her sense of being 'not right' goes back to not fitting in with her perception of her family:
"Her sister, of the fascinating wide mobile mouth, the far-set cat-like eyes, had always been a proper Appleby Savage. She had had the Appleby Savage gift, as well as long brown legs that looked good in shorts. Celeste had known about things at the back being smaller than things at the front without ever having to be told. She had a way of being dreamy, dishevelled, lovely, even in her old pink flannelette pyjamas, thinking interesting thoughts behind her lovely green eyes. Celeste's birds made Father laugh with surprise and pleasure in a way Pixie's never did." (p.198-9)
Douglas wants to get along, he just struggles with how to manage it. I like this description of him trying to be 'one of the lads':
"It was always like this out on site with the men. He made a point of reading the sports pages just for these moments and tried to memorise a few things so he could say Vaughan's peaked, or They'd be better of sacking Stannard. But when it came to it, the conversation always seemed to go in some other direction and needed information he had not memorised, or when it came to the moment, he could not remember if it was Vaughan or Stannard who had peaked." (p.185)
We only get a small amount of background information, it is mainly a story about Karakarook, and the impact it has on these two strangers who come to town. They both have a crisis of confidence and learn something new about themselves, which is always a satisfying thing in a good story, because the place and the experience has a real impact on them. Though you are not sure if they have so much of an impact on the place, in fact whether people at all do, it has a timeless quality, at least the flies do:
"A fly hovered near her eye and she flapped at it irritably. It circled back and tried the other eye. She flapped it away again. It avoided her hand, but languidly, unconcerned. It could do it all day, circle and land, circle and land. It could go on forever. She could not." (p.345)
A lovely book, wonderful sympathetic characters, highly recommended.