Review of Perfect by Sally Emerson

Review by Aspen Pattinson 

Sally Emerson, Perfect (2022)

In her latest collection, Perfect, Sally Emerson takes her exploration of domestic life and its dramas into the realm of the extraordinary and even the seemingly impossible. On the surface, her stories look at those aspects of human life familiar to many: the journey to and through parenthood, caring for elderly relatives, moving away from home, and negotiating familial relationships. At its heart, Perfect explores family — the relationships within and without it, the difficulties and challenges faced by it, and the legacies it leaves across generations. Yet, beneath the surface come strange and often beguiling portraits, a strong sense of the uncanny running throughout the collection, with some more successful than others.

Three stories in particular are standouts in the collection. The first, ‘Death Certificates’, follows twenty-nine-year-old Susan struggling to balance caring for her father living with Alzheimer’s with her commute to London where she works in the administration of death, marriage and birth certificates. One day at work, she finds two death certificates on her desk, dated a week in the future. Come that day the following week, both events take place in exactly the way the certificates described. Initially thinking herself mad, Susan has to confront her responsibilities when more future-dated certificates begin to arrive. Instantly drawing in the reader, this is a fascinating portrait of a woman consumed by her duties both familial and societal. The eerie dreaminess of the prose borders on the folkloric, and Emerson successfully captures the moral heart of the tale while at the same time prompting more questions than are answered. 

‘Fairy Tales’ sees two young lodgers — Charlie and Elinor — move into the spare rooms of a large house in London owned by a mercurial and secretive landlady, Elizabeth Watson. With each having their own reasons for moving away from home, they both quickly find Mrs Watson taking an unusually strong interest in them, and with each feeling more and more unwell in the house, questions about Mrs Watson’s absent children, to whom they bear uncanny resemblances, begin to surface. Once again, the pull of the narrative is strong, with the tale feeling not out of place amongst the likes of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Each of the story’s three protagonists are well-drawn, with the layers of their lives often hinted at rather than explicitly revealed, and Emerson’s careful character building is as artful as it is intriguing.

Completing the trio, ‘The Couple’ proves a memorable end to Emerson’s experimental collection. Martin Warner, an academic on a work trip to Los Angeles, is enchanted by a mysterious, almost other-worldly couple he encounters in a museum, with the pair appearing to be almost exact opposites. While the woman is “regal[]” and “infatuat[ing]”, the man is coarse and bullish, both together proving to be “terrifying and electrifying”. Martin, and Alice, another young woman he runs into at the exhibit, are bewitched by them and, after returning to London, meet to discuss the fact that they both keep seeing the couple not just in their own time but in paintings and photographs spanning centuries. ‘The Couple’ tackles arguably the largest and most abstractly philosophical ideas in the collection, namely the notion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, where the line is drawn between the two, and how both enter the lives of all of us. Emerson’s folkloric, even mythical, style is expertly executed in this final story and is one which prompts lasting questions in the mind of the reader as all the best myths are able to do. However, while this style is Emerson’s strongest and most successful technique in the collection, it could have been applied with equal finesse across all seven stories.

Maybe the least successful story was the opening titular tale, ‘Perfect’, in which Portia and husband Jack, a rich and successful but rather cold and distant couple, are struggling to conceive. Faced with this challenge, Portia suggests an outlandish and morally dubious solution: to clone Jack’s DNA in the creation of an embryo. Jack’s resistance to this idea does not stop her, and throughout the ensuing pregnancy and birth of their child, Emerson explores the ramifications of such a monumental decision in the lives of the couple, throwing up questions about what it means to be a parent, whether one can construct a ‘perfect’ life, and whether it is indeed possible to be born again. However, the nuance of these complex and fundamental issues — birth, life, death, legacy, love, and familial bonds — is somewhat lost in the delivery, especially in the first half. It is difficult to tell at points whether Jack and Portia’s manner of speaking to one another is indicative of their relative distance as a couple, or whether it is in fact a woodenness in the writing of dialogue. At points, they speak to one another as if they don’t know each other at all, and at others the level of dialogue used for exposition becomes rather grating. The character of Portia feels underdeveloped in contrast to those of other stories, almost at points tipping into the realm of cliché. On the other hand, the character of Jack is much more nuanced, and his internal battle is more successfully realised. Wrestling with confusion as to why his wife thinks: “he needed a chance to redeem himself, to live all over again”, he views the very notion of cloning as “people who see it as their right to be immortal.” Yet, Jack’s symbiotic relationship with his son is undeniable. He reflects on the experience of his son’s birth as witnessing his own, and is overcome by a feeling that: “the world wasn’t good enough for Baby Jack.” Jack is the character with the emotional depth which carries the story, as his internal battle is the one which presents the questions and moral dilemmas of the story to the reader. However, without the counterbalance of an equally developed Portia to throw up her side of their moral quandary, the story fails to fully explore some of the larger issues at play — the idea of science and technological advancement versus human morality, for example — and ultimately lacks the substance and style of many of the others in the collection.

The collection, though somewhat uneven, on the whole tackles large ideas with an engrossing mythological style, wit and humour, strong character development, and expert eye for the intersections in everyday life between the mundane and the existential, the minutiae of daily routine and the philosophical underpinnings of human existence.

Aspen Pattinson is a publishing professional, English Literature graduate and freelance writer, currently working in editorial at Hachette UK.