Ian Colford’s work has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, and his first published work was a collection of stories. It’s no surprise that he can write succinctly and put a short form to work.
In 2012, he published his first novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, which honed his skill with building tension and transforming the ordinary events of a life into elements of extraordinary importance in a work more than 400 pages long.
His novella, Perfect World, seems to combine the strengths of his earlier works, with spare prose and snapshot glimpses of a life presented in such a way that readers are more compelled to turn the pages even as the main character’s company becomes harder to bear.
“There is, however, an expression in his father’s eyes when he speaks of his mother that Tom doesn’t like, that he wants to challenge and wipe out – a mournful, canine acceptance of yet one more thing that is beyond comprehension.”
Tom Brackett is thirteen years old when readers meet him, a resident of Black River, comprised of 50 families and 6 churches along the highway. In short order, an event both commonplace and disturbing, results in his being sent to live with his grandmother, outside Liverpool on the South Shore.
From there, readers follow his experience as the years pass, his “warped vision of what passes for normal”, both from within and without.
As a youngster, Tom is most keenly aware of the pressures from without, his realisation that “…this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from.”
Characters from inside and outside the family are tightly drawn, as Tom grows from boyhood into “marriage, mortgaged, a father”. Often the characterization settles in simple details, like the way someone drives, or the way in which clothing hangs from (or clings to) someone’s body.
This is deft handling, but it is the way in which time and motion are negotiated in the book which is truly remarkable.
The passage of time and its relationship with memory is even more complex in narrative than it is in life.
Even while Tom is a teenager and recognising his grandmother’s neurological decline — first, laughing with her about her temporary confusion about his identity, then moving beyond laughter into something darker — he is aware that his own confusion lurks beneath the surface of his consciousness.
Not even Tom can “be sure if the images that come to mind are the product of memory or imagination.” But Perfect World is Tom’s story, and readers experience it alongside him, affirming and allowing his confusion to pass for normal, whether memories or fantasies.
Partly because this basic distinction is unreliable for Tom, his experience of time is altered as well (and, hence, the reader’s experience of time).
Some chapters are very short but manage to feel lengthy and heavy; others are longer, but more scenic in nature, and sometimes “Tom imagines them frozen forever in these expectant poses”.
The reader tiptoes and darts through the glimpses into Tom’s life, moments frozen and thawed, sometimes observing that the “almost ceremonial caution with which he navigates his way around the stones littering the lawn resembles the slow progress of a man wading through deep water”.
Other times, the tempo contrasts. “As he draws near to her his heart lurches to a stop, then stutters back into motion like some wounded engine.”
In some chapters, time is elastic and, in others, taut: “Having her with him is what he’s referring to, the mingling of past and present to create something that is neither.
Frequently there is a rhythm to the events, but one which the reader feels second-hand, slightly discomfited though solidly invested inTom’s experience.
“What he wants is distraction, an end to the questions. He leads her upstairs to the bedroom, but even as he buries himself in her, he cannot erase from his mind the face in the mirror, nor shut his ears to the beating of wings.”
Tom is forever in motion, seeking a balance which seems just out of reach, even when he brushes against stability and comfort.
“Part of him doesn’t care, part of him cares deeply. Both are dangerous. How will he ever learn to steer between the two?”
This kind of steering is prominent in the world of Canadian letters, from classics like Timothy Findley’s Headhunter to contemporary works like Lauren B. Davis’ The Stubborn Season and Barry Dempster’s Outside World ( as well as international bestsellers like Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Now You See Her, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True).
Ian Colford’s vision is deliberate and focussed, Tom’s unravelling all-the-more compelling against the backdrop of exacting and meticulous construction.