Halifax writer Ian Colford is very good at crafting scenes of violence. His previous novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, contains a sequence in which the central character is strapped to a metal bedframe and administered electric shocks – a moment so potent and brutal the reader experiences it almost viscerally. So capable is Colford of capturing the character’s agony on the page that the scene appears to go on for much longer than it actually does.
There is a similar scene in Colford’s new book, which is otherwise very different from its predecessor. Set in an anonymous South American country, The Crimes of Hector Tomás is a sprawling tale of political strife and totalitarian violence, painted on a grand scale. Perfect World, by contrast, is a much more intimate work, smaller in both size and focus. It tells the story of Tom Brackett, a family man who seems to have escaped from the shadow of his mentally ill mother and alcoholic father, but eventually succumbs to the depredations of a disease he is incapable of understanding or controlling.
It is Tom’s spiralling descent into mental illness that leads to that scene of horrific violence, which in this case involves a table saw and a young child. The book – at fewer than 190 pages, little more than a novella – is structured in a manner that is almost pointillist, with impressionistic scenes touching on brief moments in Tom’s life then moving on; it is not uncommon for the narrative to leap forward many years over the course of a chapter break. This is simultaneously appropriate to the story and potentially alienating; there are elements throughout the book that feel glossed over and sketched in.
This is particuarly true of Tom’s father, whose descent into addiction and life on the streets occurs largely off-stage. We encounter him at the novel’s opening, when the Brackett nuclear family is still more or less intact, but he disappears from the narrative for long stretches, resurfacing (with a new girlfriend in tow) after Tom’s mother has been institutionalized, then again to raid the family homestead for any items he can sell at a profit after his mother – Tom’s grandmother – dies.
Tom’s sister and mother also float in and out of the story, the former appearing most potently as an adult, in a scene at a diner. Tom’s sister, Bev, has been estranged from the family since she was a child; at the book’s opening the children’s mother is suffering what appears to be a kind of postpartum depression, but eventually blossoms into full-blown psychosis, which requires her to be seconded to full-time care at a facility for the mentally ill. Bev’s resentment at being sent to live with her grandmother while Tom remains back home with their father grows into the seething belligerence we encounter in the scene at the diner, a sequence involving the infliction of a very different kind of violence.
Tom’s central act – the scene with the table saw – is the nexus from which everything in the book either flows into or out of. It is the most crucial manifestation of his disease, which resembles schizophrenia and is assumed to be at least partially inherited from his mother. A constellation of factors, including his troubled relations with his parents and sibling, and his own increasingly troublesome relationship with alcohol, conspire to rob Tom of everything he has struggled so hard to build, and serves as a reminder that he is bound to his family and its history, no matter how desperately he wants to break free of it.
Perfect World is a corruscating examination of a mind riven by illness and the traumatic ripple effects that can have on one man and those closest to him. The book’s power resides precisely in its brevity, which provides a focus and an immediacy that is striking and emotionally devastating. Colford treats his subject directly and without sentimentality, which only adds to the overall effect. 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. Tom’s experience is harrowing and painful, but ends on a note of contingency and, if one chooses to look at it this way, hope.
One thing: in his acknowledgements, the author writes that he “does not mean to trivialize these struggles by depicting them in a work of fiction.” This comment seems passing strange for a novelist – particularly one of Colford’s capability and evident empathy. Fiction, as Colford surely knows, is capable of communicating truth and emotion in a way that non-fiction often isn’t, and is frequently more effective at producing real-world change or action. (Anyone who doubts this need only Google the terms “Émile Zola” and “Germinal.”) Far from trivializing these issues, a novel’s unique ability to render them in sharp detail and uncompromising ambiguity honours such experiences and offers readers an empathetic window through which to view them.