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Laura Hamley, the narrator of this book, lives the whole upper-middle class lifestyle. In a desirable suburb she and her similar friends go to yoga, meet for coffee, shop and discuss their concerns about hair, houses and their children. Laura has a lawyer husband and two young children, Thomas and Arianna. 'This Perfect World' of the title is interrupted by a phone call from Mrs Partridge, the mother of Heddy . Heddy and Laura were at primary school together. Laura, always a popular attractive girl, led the bullying of the slow and unattractive Heddy. Laura was particularly nasty to Heddy because her parents, especially her father, insisted she be nice to Heddy and took her along with Laura to Brownies and ballet, which Laura greatly resented. Mrs Partridge has rung Laura to tell her that Heddy, who now has a young son of her own, is in a mental hospital; she desperately needs Laura's help. Laura is extremely reluctant but by small steps she gets increasingly drawn in to the lives of Mrs Partridge and Heddy; she is forced to confront her own past and slowly her 'perfect world' disintegrates.
THIS PERFECT WORLD is Suzanne Bugler's first adult novel and may therefore be called her debut. It has a great deal to commend it. It is well-written and completely engrossing. There is a great deal of humour, especially in the first half, as Laura describes the life of the well-off full-time mother in early 21st century southern England. Bugler's prose is sardonic and satiric and she is sometimes very funny. In addition this gave me a glimpse into a world about which I know absolutely nothing and it was a real eye-opener. If it is even half-true, and there is no particular reason to doubt it, it gives a devastating portrait of one of the social and cultural chasms which rend English society. This is all the more effective for being done through the weapon of humour and wry observation.
If the humour is well-done the cruelty is even better. The accounts of childhood bullying, cruelty and humiliation are heart-rending and hard to read. Bugler shows both their particular psychological origins, and also the way they operate sociologically as the peer group pack turns on the outsider. However, excellent as these aspects of the book are what really holds it together and drives it forward is the character of Laura herself, and the use of first-person narrator. I have recently heard the observation that with all first-person narration one should always ask the question who is the fourth character involved? The first three characters are of course the writer, the reader and the fictional ‘I' - but who is that ‘I' addressing? In this case Laura is above all addressing herself. This is a narrative partly of self-justification (that is certainly how it opens), which moves on to become a narrative of self-analysis, then self-accusation. Bugler handles this extremely well. Laura is after all an extremely unsympathetic character; to make the reader stick with her is a feat in itself. I would not say that at the end of the book one is sympathetic to Laura but one recognises her as fully human; if one weeps it is not for her but for our condition. And there is something of Laura in all but saints (in whose existence I do not really believe).
In summary then this is a first rate book; excellently conceived and executed, it grips the attention and manages to be both funny and moving. It has much of both psychological and, above all, sociological interest. But there is a problem. Careful readers will have noted that I have nowhere referred to either 'mystery' or 'plot'. I know that what should be included in the genre is a matter for debate, but here there is no real legal crime and no real mystery (when the explanation is revealed it is hardly a surprise or of any great interest). Nevertheless, it is certainly being marketed as a psychological thriller.
Whether or not that's the company this book belongs in, it is a compelling psychological and sociological study which manages to be both a humorous description of a particular social world and a deeply moving account of human cruelty, in which the children's games of exclusivity and bullying are reflected in adult behaviour. The first-person narration is brilliantly handled. All in all, this is, to use a cliché which I never shy away from because it is such a pleasure when one finds a book to which it applies, a stunning debut.
§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).
Reviewed by Nick Hay, August 2010
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