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Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
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Coming of age in Pisgah
Navtej Sarna

07/04/2006

THE PERFECT MAN. By Naeem Murr. 429pp. Heinemann. Pounds 14.99. 0 434 01114 2

Naeem Murr describes a childhood in a foreign land

Many years ago, William Golding's Lord of the Flies would keep me awake at night with its tale of how easily a perfectly civilized group of English schoolboys could, in the circumstances of the jungle, descend into barbarism.

The dark places of the soul, Golding suggests, are not far under the surface; only the constraints of society have to be removed. But where Golding needed to take his schoolboys away to a desert island in order to unleash the demons that stalk the hidden crevices of the soul, Naeem Murr does it with accomplished ease in Pisgah, a small town in Missouri, a beautiful place, with "blue chicory along the dusty country roads, lightning bugs over fields of white daisies, humming-birds in the honey-suckle vines". In other words, life can happen anywhere: good and evil, love and hatred, desire and deception can hang around any nondescript corner, and any stray glance may signal the fatal ambush.

Murr chooses a young boy called Rajiv Travers, his half-Indian name and his dark skin eternal reminders that he is born of an abandoned Indian mother, to take the reader to Pisgah in the 1950s, "in a flood year, by the night train, on tracks raised by men then called Negroes out in the darkness". Rajiv's arrival in that small town is a deliberate telescoping of the wide world beyond, its distant limits marked by India, where he was born, by England, where he was left by his father with an uncle and a most unwilling aunt, and by Australia, where his father now is looking for more adventures. On the night of his arrival, Rajiv's second uncle, to whom he is now being tossed, commits suicide. The woman with whom the uncle was living, enigmatic Ruth, a tireless writer of old-fashioned romances, in a strange decision agrees to keep Rajiv with her. The boy's gentle humour begins to earn him friends, overriding, for the most part and more easily than would have seemed possible, the difference in skin colour, and finally a childhood begins to take root in this new place.

At one level, The Perfect Man is a very competent coming-of-age novel, exploring friendship, love, heartbreak and the chilling dawn of adult wisdom in Rajiv and his group of friends. But it is also a book about arrival and departures, about developing roots in a place, particularly as an outsider.

Rajiv, condemned by his skin to "feel outside of things", kills a wounded bird because he wants to stay on in Pisgah. And he succeeds, because "there are only two ways to tie yourself to a place: fall in love or commit a crime; assimilate or violate". In Pisgah there will be no shortage of love, nor any dearth of crime.

Through the friendships that the boy makes, Murr skilfully opens up the worlds hidden in that small town, the secrets -embarrassing, shameful, or dark buried in each family. There is the world of Lew, the farmer's child, born to roam the woods and bathe in streams, his beautiful innocence forever haunted by the mysterious death, on a bluff over the Missouri River, of his autistic brother.

Annie of the dirty yellow socks, who is half in love with Rajiv and half with Lew, struggles bravely to look after her Italian immigrant father's weaknesses, her mother's infidelities and the destructive impact of both on her brother.

Nora, the acne-afflicted busty blonde girl from a Dutch immigrant family, discovers and then fights the incestuous advances of her father and his visceral hatred for Rajiv's dark skin. Alvin is the cowardly, lying son of the town preacher, an egotistical man who thinks nothing of revealing the secrets of his marriage in front of his congregation and his wife, who finally finds her steel. And there is Ruth herself, a cerebral presence content with her dog, Fifty-Three, because he adores her "and eats leftovers", observing the townspeople in unsparing detail and noting it all in the journals that will then feed her romances. Disaster is inevitable when these journals fall into the hands of Alvin, who is smarting under the neglect of the other children and haunted by the suicide of a loner, a man remembered only for winning the slow bicycle race three years in a row at a county fair: "How could you kill yourself in the sunlight? How could you get so lonely and crazy?".