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By Kirstyn McDermott, Twelfth Planet Press, 2014 (2012)

Reviewed by Kyla Lee Ward

Perfections cover"She keeps writing, ignoring the sparks of pain in her hand, the winch-tight ache across her shoulders from sitting curled over for so long. Knowing that most of it has to be rubbish, the words no better than ashes and dust, because nothing that comes this easily can possibly be good – can it? can it? – but writing anyway, compelled to get everything out and onto the page."

With only a slight shift of perspective, this could be a razor-edged depiction of the worst month in the lives of two sisters. The month one ends a four-year relationship. The month their mother dies. It could be that story; only then readers like me wouldn't touch it. Readers like me need the gloss, the promise of something beyond. And that is exactly where the horror of Perfections lies.

Jacqueline is the elder, the responsible, clear-thinking one with the degree and the job in the gallery. Antoinette is the impulsive, passionate one, who works as a waitress to support her lover as he finishes his novel. They perform their ritualistic dance, of mutual comfort and contempt, in contemporary Melbourne, attempting to avoid all but equally ritualistic contact with their eccentric mother, who lives like a hermit out in the Dandenongs.

Neither sister creates. Although both are drawn, in their separate ways, to acts of imagination, neither imagines she can perform them. Until Antoinette, without really meaning to, crosses the line. Until the night she is left alone with a bottle of vodka and an empty notebook, and then, of course, all hell breaks loose.

McDermott provides us with a fresh and powerful take on the wish motif, based upon a blisteringly simple premise. What if perfection was within your reach? What would be the consequences, when human lives are created through frustration and compromise, but also understanding and forgiveness? Hell in the Dandenongs, is what. "But I didn't mean it!" is no defence, with equally short shrift given to "That's not fair!" Speaking of Stephen King's It, the critic Lloyd Rose wrote, "His characters live in the worst possible moral universe: you're punished if you do wrong, and you suffer if you're innocent"("The Triumph of the Nerds", The Atlantic Monthly, September 1986). In Perfections, the innocent and the wrong are revealed, through an endlessly reflecting set of mirrors, to be one and the same. For me, what Sally Paige did to safeguard her daughters against exactly the kind of disaster that is now in progress was unforgivable. It was also the closest she ever came to pure love.

Nor is this act, which I shall not reveal, the only unforgivable in the catalogue. In crisp, evocative prose, McDermott explores the darkest corners of her premise, be they located in a painter's studio, a nightclub or a tumbledown shed on the very edge of the bush. The grotesque lurks here, cheek by cheek with the seductive, and lubricated with increments of blood – by the end of the book, that's quite a lot of blood. From the most innocuous of beginnings, the horror builds and expands, and builds, literally up until the final page.

Don't go look there. You won't understand it yet.

Like McDermott's previous novel, Madigan Mine (Picador, 2010), this is a consummate character piece. As said, this could be a perfectly realistic novel, if McDermott permitted us the balm of metaphor. Supernatural frissons aside, I felt for Jacqueline as she attempted to shoulder the burden, as she always has, of Antoinette and her mother's hysterics; rejoiced as the ghastly revelations paradoxically gave her freedom. But never did I fail to sympathise with Antoinette, nor cheer as she reached towards a greater maturity. As Sally's story was revealed, I felt for her, as well as slightly queasy. And if that weren't enough, there is Loki. Gorgeous, loving and so very clever, and splitting apart under unbearable pressures. The supporting cast are also beautifully drawn, as foils and further mirrors, and even as frail rays of hope. But they too suffer that fatal, fundamental yearning towards perfection. Artist Ryan and novelist Paul, even the stage-managing Greta, are simply permitted less effective means.

Perfections was originally released as an e-book by Xoum in 2012. It is this edition that scooped both the Aurealis Award for best horror novel, and the Australian Shadow Award in that year. This, however, is a review of the Twelfth Planet paperback released in 2014, a nicely-presented volume with an understated cover by Amanda Rainey. Both paperback and digital formats are available from Twelfth Planet Press.

Perfections is not an easy read. But it is a book that shows what the genre is really capable of. Although I can't claim it is the perfect evocation of artistic horror, in the circumstances, that's something we should all be glad of.


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