Perfect Peace

I began Daniel Black novel Perfect Peace last night and could not put it down. In 1940s Arkansas Emma Jean gives birth to her sixth son but so desperate is she for a daughter that she lies to everyone that the boy is a girl, a ‘girl’ she names Perfect. This lie continues till Perfect’s eighth birthday.

Black has written a rivetting novel about identity, gender, sexuality and above all flawed parents, their confused children and small town mentality. Perfect Peace (the names in this novel are delicious as is the chapter delineating how each son got his name) raises some very interesting questions about parental obligations and the far reaching legacy of abuse. Had Emma Jean’s mother loved her even a little bit would she have been as desperate to cherish a daughter as she herself was never cherished? Had her sisters been a little nicer might they have saved her from herself? Had Gus been a little less worried about community might Perfect’s transition have been a little easier for everyone? Had King Solomon’s (by far my favorite character) dreams truly broken could he too have entered into the spiral of abuse?

Emma Jean’s mother is a thoroughly believable monster whose poisonous spirit informs every page of the novel as does Emma Jean’s struggle between hating her mother and desperately wanting to love her and be loved by her. Can people really ever heal from wounds inflicted by parents? Can siblings affection truly be a balm? Can people honestly find happiness once they ‘choose’ to settle into lives they know they will regret? Since Emma Jean was herself a victim of ‘favoritism’ should she have known not to pick and choose amongst her own children? Can a ‘sorry’ really heal all ills? What sort of a person can and cannot live with regrets?

Black has employed the interesting stylistic device of interrupting a character’s present story in order to divulge their future; no doubt for a reader who wants to get to the end only at the end and not in media res this will be very irritating, however, once I got used to this tic I enjoyed it but only because Black prose flows very well and his characters are full and rich. There is so much in this novel– child abuse, incest, rape, madness, domestic violence, mean spiritedness, shadenfreude,– which could have been heavy handed and yet is all the more terrible for Black showing these things through his characters rather than harping on about these ills.  I loved the way children innocently told each other how Daddies and Mummies behave. As for the explorations of why it is  ‘happier’ to be a girl rather than a boy and that too a pretty girl, they are pitch perfect and heart breaking. I was also riveted by the explorations of what it means to be a ‘pretty boy’ or an ‘ugly girl’ and how these description, true or not, can mold one’s character.

I would have liked more of an ending to Perfect/Paul’s story as well as that of Mister and Johnny Ray and King Solomon but is it really a flaw when the reader wants the story to never end?