The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville Picador Pan Macmillan 1999; 401 pp; $21.00 softcover.
"Human beings are weak, but together in a relationship, they can provide a strength for each other. Each can be the equal and opposite force the other needs".
So writes Kate Grenville in her recent Orange award winning novel The Idea of Perfection. It is set in a small village in Western New South Wales (Karakarook) , and deals with the relationships of rural people in the turmoil of modernisation.
The Orange Prize was set up in 1966 with the aim of promoting fiction by women writers. Past winners have included Carol Shields and Suzanne Berne. The prize is worth over $80,000 and is held to be Britain's richest for female English-language novelists. This year's short list for prize winners included a Booker winner from Canada as well as writers from all over the English speaking world. The prize was presented in London on 5 June this year.
Although relatively unknown outside Australia, Grenville was the only author picked by the official judges all of whom are women, as well the "unofficial" all male panel. The chairperson of the panel described the novel as "exquisite, minutely observed study"
The Idea of Perfection is Grenville's fifth novel. There are two main characters - Douglas Cheeseman a civil engineer from Sydney, and Harley Savage also sent up from Sydney to held establish a heritage museum and who thinks that the bush is in another country. Both of them are presently unmarried, and both of them are haunted by ideas of perfection. As a result of being in the bush both characters change profoundly.
Some of the other people can be easily identified with rural Australia. Felicity is the bank manager's wife and an ex Palmolive model, and she has an affair with the Chinese butcher. There are only a few businesses in Karakarook, but as is dryly noted "you could not window shop in Karakarook unless you were in the market for dead flies" . There are plenty of noteworthy citizens like the elderly lady with "a small tight perm …on her head like a tidy brown animal"
Patrick White described one of Grenville's previous novels (Lillian's Story) as "dazzling". She is really a descendant of White and his contemporary Chistina Stead. The Idea of Perfection is a wholly Australian novel that is as busy as the bush for those who can see and hear it.