(This is a guest review submitted by Naomi MacKinnon of Consumed by Ink.) Naomi often reviews books that I can never get around to reading, and such is the case with Tom Colford’s Perfect World.)
We first meet Tom as a 13-year-old living in rural Nova Scotia with his parents and new baby sister. But ever since his sister was born, his mother has been having what his father calls “spells”. They are disturbing enough to Tom that he tries to stay out of the way of his mother when he can. In addition, he is “vaguely resentful of his father’s apparent indifference to the sudden changes that have swooped down on his life and stripped it of predictability and routine.”
His confusion is real, but he can’t find words to express it. A niggling voice whispers in his ear a warning to keep his questions to himself. His father has offered no explanation. This is the man who always knows what to do, who can fix whatever’s broken. To get through the day Tom must ignore his fears and follow his father’s lead, staying quiet in the expectation that the situation will right itself on its own.
But the situation doesn’t right itself, needless to say, and his mother’s illness tears their family apart. Tom is sent to live with his Grandmother in Liverpool, while his father takes his mother and sister for help in the city. Now he only sees his father periodically and hears next to nothing about his mother and baby sister.
In between the visits from his father, he heard nothing from his family, and with the passage of time, he didn’t even bother wondering what might be going on. The loneliness persisted, but as he settled deeper into this new life with his grandmother, his old life receded until the distances were too vast to cross without great effort, and he left it behind, shelved like some project to which he planned, someday, to return.
Life goes on, and Tom is grown, living in the city with his wife, two children and a dog. He has a good job as a mechanic, and they are happy. Until Tom starts feeling foggy and confused, on edge and irritable. His wife notices the change in him and suggests he see a doctor, but Tom is in denial. Besides, he feels much better after he’s had a few drinks.
Right now, though, he doesn’t want her help, because the truth frightens him and he lacks the faith and courage to look it in the eye. What he wants is a 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.
Over the years, Tom’s father turned to alcohol and is now an alcoholic living in poverty. Out of fear of becoming his father and of losing his family, Tom stops drinking. But the darkness and confusion only continue to get worse until the unimaginable happens.
For a single horrible instant the fog lifts, and he comprehends the harm he has caused. The tears he sheds are real. With something like disgust he listens to the sound he makes weeping for his ruined life.
Perfect World is a story about the impact mental illness can have on a family, how it can be passed down through generations and continue to wreak havoc. It is chilling and sad, and painful to watch, but I highly recommend it. Tom’s determination to maintain control and to live a good life, against so many obstacles, is absorbing and affecting. By writing this book, Ian Colford has given us a chance to vicariously experience a life that is hard for many of us to imagine.
Idly, he lines up the nine pill bottles side by side across the coffee table. They stand like chess pieces or sentinels guarding an entryway, each wearing a white or yellow or brown uniform and white cap. A few are fat and squat, a couple are slender and taller than the rest. Each throws a distinctive shadow. They are his only friends, his intimate confidants. He knows them by name, by colour, by shape: round white olanzapine, the red capsule risperidone, the pale blue lozenge clomipramine. They have saved him and they are killing him.
Perfect World was shortlisted in the book design category at the 2017 Alberta Book Publishing Awards. A collection of Tom Colford’s short fiction is scheduled for publication under the Vagrant Press imprint of Nimbus Publishing in the fall of 2019.
Other thoughts on Perfect World:
Anne Logan’s I’ve Read This blog:
“The fact that this book is quite short and well-written also makes it easier to dive into these difficult subjects, because we aren’t forced to live in this world for too long. Colford doesn’t feel the need to show empathy for his protagonist, but his respect for the reader is evident in his succinct and unsentimental sentences. It won’t be easy, but I highly recommend reading this book.”
“The novella is admittedly bleak and distressing, though not completely devoid of what Leonard Cohen referred to as the cracks where the light gets in.”
Perfect World by Ian Colford
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