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The Perfect Manby Naeem Murr
Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Europe and South Asia.
Identity, friendship, and a long-hidden crime lie at the heart of Naeem Murr's captivating novel about five friends growing up in a small 1950s Missouri river town. A contender for the Man Booker Prize, this exhilarating story beautifully evokes the extreme joys, as well as the dark and shameful desires, of childhood.
Young Rajiv Travers hasn't had much luck fitting in anywhere. Born to an Indian mother who was sold to his English father for £20, Raj is abandoned by his relatives into the reluctant care of Ruth, an American romance writer living in Pisgah, Missouri. While his skin color unsettles most of the townsfolk, who are used to seeing things in black and white, the quick-witted Raj soon finds his place among a group of children his own age.
While the friends remain loyal to one another through the years, it becomes clear that their paths will veer in markedly different directions. But breaking free of the demands of their families and their community, as well as one another, comes at a devastating price: As the chilling secrets of Pisgah's residents surface, the madness that erupts will cost Raj his closest friend even as it offers him the life he always dreamed of.
Taking us into the intimate life of small-town America, The Perfect Man explores both the power of the secrets that shape us and the capacity of love in all its guises to heal even the most damaged of souls.
"Murr elegantly explores smalltown insularity and secrecy in this Commonwealth Award — winning third novel, following The Boy and The Genius of the Sea. Abandoned by his white father and his absent Indian mother, rejected by his intolerant London relatives, Rajiv Travers, 12 years old in 1954, is sent to stay with his father's other brother, Oliver, who has recently followed the love of his life, romance novelist Ruth, from New York City to tiny Pisgah, Mo. In short order, Oliver commits suicide, and Ruth becomes an uneasy guardian to this curious young boy, who shields himself from pain and prejudice with his quick wit and shrewd impersonations. Peerwise, Raj is quickly taken under the wing of Annie Celli, already a striking beauty, joining a group that also includes Annie's soul mate, the delicate and emotionally fragile Lewis. As the friends grow into young men and women, Annie finds herself torn between her devotion to the increasingly unstable Lewis (who witnessed his younger brother's murder) and her undeniable feelings for Raj. Murr takes a Faulknerian approach to his portrait of Pisgah, peopling it with minor characters whose eccentricities provide local color and shrouded gothic elements — one of which reverberates menacingly. Murr poignantly dramatizes love's capacity to effect change." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'Heartland Gothic' is the quickest way to describe Naeem Murr's new book, but it is as inaccurate as any shorthand for so defiantly unclassifiable a novel. 'The Perfect Man' sits uncomfortably in its time period — the 1950s — and is not as Gothic as Murr encourages readers to expect. It isn't quite a coming-of-age story or an immigration saga, either, although the author seems to be attempting to... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) wedge it into these categories as well. Instead, 'The Perfect Man' is a long, fitful narrative punctuated with intermittent patches of arrestingly beautiful writing. One of those patches crops up in the opening chapters, when, in 1947, a world-traveling British ne'er-do-well uproots his illegitimate 5-year-old son, Rajiv, from the child's birthplace in India. In London the father casually abandons the boy to the care of a reluctant uncle, who in turn fobs him off, seven years later, on a second uncle living on a little farm in Pisgah, Mo. A mere few hours before Rajiv's arrival in America, the Missouri uncle kills himself by drinking a bottle of insecticide. Murr invites readers to expect that plucky, adaptable Rajiv will be the novel's center, surviving these inauspicious beginnings to offer an outsider's view of daily life in Pisgah. Yet as soon as the boy becomes installed in the house of his dead uncle's paramour, he recedes into an ensemble crowd of townspeople. The narrative flits unpredictably among many of these figures, never settling on any key character. Take Ruth, the former live-in lover of Rajiv's late uncle, who reluctantly becomes the boy's guardian. A writer of romance novels in her mid-40s, she finds herself, during the course of one terrible day, grieving for a dead man and coerced into caring for a 12-year-old stranger. In the six years that follow, as she and Rajiv achieve an unexpectedly touching rapport, she reveals a dark side that occasionally overpowers her compassionate nature, compelling her to fill private journals with venomous invective about nearly everybody in Pisgah. That includes the preening minister and his timorous wife; a group of prominent men — including the Italian storekeeper and the bullying owner of the meatpacking plant — who spend all their free time together and share the worst of the community's many violent secrets; a pair of doddering Russian sisters who, despite rumors of their tremendous wealth, fill handbags with free food at every party; and a pitifully unlucky dirt farmer whose elder son was recently institutionalized after allegedly killing his autistic brother. The town's other children cope with their share of difficulties as they try to maneuver through the hazardous undertow of their parents' furtive transgressions, which include everything from racism and infidelity to rape, incest, beatings and murder. Rajiv's best friends are Lewis and Annie, the storekeeper's daughter, and the three spend their high-school years trying to swathe themselves in the shreds of their childhood innocence while a muddy torrent of adult corruption threatens to engulf them. Murr, who was born in London, has lived in the United States since his early 20s — part of that time in Missouri — and is a poet as well as the author of two previous novels, both set in England. He's a master of small, piercing characterizations: He describes Rajiv's adolescent body as 'jerking and trembling with a twelve-year-old's misfiring energy,' while the anxious, mincing wife of the local minister is, for Ruth, 'like something caught in her throat.' There are sensual evocations of the town's outlying physical features: the sinkhole where the children swim, the cattail swamp, the ruins of an old mill. And Murr gives the nearby woods and the teeming river both symbolic and realistic resonance as sinister dumping grounds for shameful, unwanted debris. If Murr's success is in the details, his impediments lie in the novel's big picture. Lacking a central focus, the long narrative grows wayward, its momentum eventually draining away, its most brutally violent episode occurring too late to be properly shocking. The few period details seem shallowly planted: brief talk of the Korean War, a sprinkling of song and movie titles ('Unforgettable,' 'Some Like it Hot'), an unmarried pregnancy scandal or two. But like many of the characters, the era feels frustratingly opaque, a suggestion rather than a representation, like the minimalist backdrop for a play. At its best, American Gothic fiction — that of Flannery O'Connor, say, or William Faulkner, to whom Murr has been compared — depends on a mineral realism: The reader feels the dust in the characters' mouths, the scratch of their clothes. Although Murr's novel shines with occasionally brilliant prose, its virtues are more cerebral than visceral, more aloof than urgent." Reviewed by Tara McKelvey, a senior editor at the American Prospect, and the author of 'Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War'Steve Amick, who is the author of 'The Lake, the River & the Other Lake'Donna Rifkind, who reviews fiction frequently for The Washington Post, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"In Pisgah, [Murr] has created a fully fledged, self-contained world, with a vast array of characters, each quixotic and authentically flawed....The Perfect Man succeeds because it's so impeccably well written." Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin
"[The Perfect Man] succeeds in re-creating an entire world with a full spectrum of human emotions in a small Missouri town, as Faulkner did in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi." The Times Literary Supplement (London)
"Murr becomes almost playful in a dizzying carousel of dualisms: youth and maturity, intensity and detachment, sanity and madness, aggression and passivity, male and female, life and death, helplessness and power.....This title will appeal to a wide range of readers." School Library Journal
"This is the best novel I have read in many years, captivating for its beautifully crafted prose, its haunting dynamics and the author's complex evocation of a place and time through organic storytelling." Seattle Times
"Well-wrought characters and refreshingly clear prose are sufficient reasons to pick this one up." New York Times
Set in 1950s Missouri, this stunning novel evokes the intimate life of small-town America and beautifully renders the transformation of a cast-off boy from India into a profoundly decent man.
About the Author
Naeem Murr is the author of The Genius of the Sea and The Boy, a New York Times Notable Book. A recipient of numerous awards and scholarships for his writing, he has published many acclaimed stories, novellas, and nonfiction pieces in literary journals. He was a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellow, and was recently awarded a Lannan Residency Fellowship. He has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri, Western Michigan University, and Northwestern University. Born and raised in London, he has lived in America since his early twenties, and currently resides in Chicago. Visit the author's website at www.naeemmurr.com.
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