Magazine article The Spectator

A Man, Two Women and a Dog

Magazine article The Spectator

A Man, Two Women and a Dog

Article excerpt

A man, two women and a dog Francis King THE IDEA OF PERFECTION by Kate Grenville Picador, L6.99, pp. 401, ISBN 0330392611

How can one regard the L30,000 Orange Prize, for which only women novelists are eligible, as anything other than an absurdity? The establishment of a similar prize for women composers, whose works are far too rarely performed and are all too often patronised, would have some point. But fiction is the one art form in which women have always been acknowledged to excel - as histories of the novel and past Booker and Whitbread short-lists amply confirm.

However, if the absurdity of such positive discrimination must exist, then Kate Grenville was a worthy winner of the Orange this year. Set in a small country town, Karakarook, now somnolently moribund, in her native Australia, her novel concentrates on two basic themes. The first is at once announced by her title, The Idea of Perfection. The second is indicated by the frequency with which the words `awkward' and 'awkwardness' occur in the text.

The two central characters, both middleaged, are a widower called Douglas and a widow called Harley, who arrive simultaneously in Karakarook. He, an engineer, is there to demolish an old wooden bridge and replace it with a concrete one. She, an expert maker of patchwork quilts, has been summoned to advise the local heritage committee about the setting up of a museum. Inevitably, moderniser and conservationist collide.

At the end of a leafy pathway in London's Holland Park a massively impressive work of sculpture by Steven Gregory suddenly confronts the stroller. Entitled `The Two of Us', it portrays two pachyderms -- whether elephants, rhinos or hippos it is impossible to say - rearing up clumsily to grapple with each other either in rivalry or rut. This is the nature of the relationship between Douglas and Harley. Both are emotionally and physically awkward. Disastrously for an engineer, Douglas not merely suffers from vertigo but also constantly trips over himself and drops things. Harley is one of those people for whom spontaneity is so dangerous that she spends much of her time rehearsing what she will say or what expression she will adopt.

If the controversial bridge at first separates the pair, it is also what eventually brings them together. So, too, does the consciousness of the physical and psychological imperfections that have hobbled each of their lives. Just as from imperfect scraps of cloth Harley produces the perfection of her quilts, so out of a combination of their imperfections the couple achieve the eventual perfection of their relationship. …

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