This Perfect World by Suzanne Bulger is a difficult story. Laura has everything she ever wanted: a family, the ‘right’ husband, a house in the ‘right’ neighbourhood and her friends are the ‘right’ kind of people. One day she receives a phone call from an old family friend who wants Laura’s help to get her daughter, Heddy, out of a mental institution after a horrific mental break down.
Heddy is not the ‘right’ kind of people and never has been. As children Laura mercilessly bullied her for being smelly, fat and awkward; resenting Heddy for always being there when she wasn’t wanted.
Now, at the age of thirty-six, Laura has continued the perfect life and Heddy is in a mental institution, but it becomes apparent that they are more similar than Laura would like to believe. Namely, their need to self-harm. Heddy’s mental break down is expressed through her constant need to cut herself; an act Laura fears she learnt from Laura and her friends. At school, Laura and a few other girls cut themselves in class, at home, all for the ‘thrill’, not to commit suicide. A familiar theme from my school, as I knew at least a third of my class did the same. Whilst self-harm is an uncomfortable topic, it is a fascinating exploration into the attitudes towards it and the causes behind it.
Laura’s guilt dominates this novel as she reminisces her bullying of Heddy: calling her names, tripping her up, ignoring her. Again, all very familiar themes. At school there were always ‘those’ people who the popular kids didn’t like and would purposefully make their lives difficult.This makes the bullying Laura participates in and initiates even more uncomfortable to read: you can relate to it. You evaluate your own childhood and your own guilt, or lack of. Yet, it also becomes increasingly obvious that her adult life is not a far cry from her childhood self: the perfect people, the need to act in a certain way, or face being ostracized.
This Perfect World is a fascinating journey through the affect childhood memories and decisions have on your adult life. Suzanne Bulger’s decision to write the novel from Laura’s point of view increases the complexity of the emotions you feel for the characters. You understand that everyone is flawed and that secrets held close always have a way of haunting you; responsibility is inescapable. It encapsulates the common fear of having the ‘perfect’ life whilst internally living a nightmare. What it doesn’t do is show you what true contentment looks like, but that is left for you to decide for yourself. Will Laura find it? We don’t know, but her journey points her in the right direction. Perhaps you will feel she doesn’t deserve it. Whatever you decide about Laura’s guilt and your feelings toward Heddy, this book is wonderfully emotive, relatable and is highly recommended.