Perfect, by Rachel Joyce, Doubleday, RRP£14.99, 368 pages
Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, won both commercial success and wide critical acclaim (it was longlisted for the Man Booker prize). She may just repeat the trick with Perfect, a mixture of comedy and drama in much the same vein.
The narrative opens in 1972: 11-year-old Byron is told by schoolmate James that two leap seconds are to be added to time. Byron blames this temporal tinkering when his mother, Diana, knocks a girl off her bike while driving through a council estate. The girl seems unhurt but her family won’t let the matter drop, and Diana falls prey to anxiety. The consequences pursue both Byron and James into later life.
Joyce’s satire on class difference is a little simplistic (Byron’s family is caught between middle-class snobs and grasping proles) but the depiction of Diana’s mental deterioration is movingly done. Perfect it isn’t but this is a novel with the capacity to both surprise and charm.
Time On My Hands, by Giorgio Vasta, translated by Jonathan Hunt, Faber, RRP£12.99, 300 pages
In the long hot summer of 1978, Italy is terrorised by political extremists. Three Sicilian boys come to admire the militants – particularly the leftwing Red Brigades – and seek to emulate their actions and rhetoric. Led by the “dour and ideological” Scarmiglia, they start with arson, but when they imprison a schoolmate, events spin out of control.
Much like his compatriot Niccolò Ammaniti’s 2001 novel I’m Not Scared, Giorgio Vasta’s debut depicts a loss of childhood innocence against the backdrop of Italy’s “years of lead”. These Palermo schoolchildren are fascinated by the Red Brigades’ most notorious act: the then very recent kidnap and murder – in May 1978 – of the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro.
Vasta’s take on political material is unusual in focusing on unsettling visual details and clotted prose – the corpse of a feral dog; a length of barbed wire, “reddish, the color of dried blood”. It makes for a dense, fascinating, slightly frustrating read.