Book review: This Perfect World by Suzanne Bugler

Heddy Partridge is a girl most of us will recognise.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 17th January 2011, 6:00 am

She’s the one who gets mercilessly teased in the school playground but never fights back.

But the thin smile of guilty remembrance that might play around your lips as you read the opening chapters of Suzanne Bugler’s dark and disconcerting novel will soon disappear.

Because there’s a world of difference between teasing and the kind of bullying that borders on cruelty – no-one knows that better than ‘perfect’ housewife and mother Laura Hamley.

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And the past has a nasty habit of catching up with you.

It’s easy to see why This Perfect World has made it to the heady heights of Richard and Judy’s top reads because here is a clever piece of writing; a book that pricks the conscience, disturbs the equilibrium and sends the thought processes into overdrive.

Bugler’s clever plotline excels in both the expected and the unexpected...beneath what appears to be a cautionary tale about bullying lies a deeper and more complex story of deceit, conceit, superficiality, betrayal and guilt.

Laura appears to have everything; her husband is a successful lawyer, she has two beautiful children and a round of ‘busy, busy’ days that encompass dinner parties, yoga classes and a group of friends categorised as ‘people like us’.

The only worries are choosing the right nursery for your child and buying the best bread-making machine. There’s no room for weakness or social ineptness.

‘Strip away the fancy tops and the highlights and we’d be vultures in any other jungle,’ she tells herself in a moment of rare honesty.

The last thing Laura needs is a phone call from Violet Partridge, mother of her childhood nemesis Heddy, the awkward, ugly, unpopular girl who was always ‘a sort of negative’ of pretty, clever, popular Laura.

Violet needs advice on patients’ rights from Laura’s lawyer husband because ‘poor’ Heddy is self-harming and suffering from serious clinical depression in a psychiatric unit.

The call rakes up unwanted memories of those excruciating childhood years when Laura’s parents actively encouraged her to be ‘friends’ with Heddy because of some vague work-related connection.

When Laura reluctantly agrees to help Violet and Heddy, the perfect world she has so carefully constructed begins to crumble. Uncomfortable recollections of her treatment of Heddy peel away the layers of her life, revealing the void at its heart.

But there is another even more terrible truth to be unearthed, one that will sweep away her gold-plated but shallow existence.

Bugler exposes the fault lines underneath family relationships and the devastation when they finally crack open, the artificiality of the middle class ‘dream’ and the harmful consequences of bullying.

She writes with intensity and honesty about a world of glaring differences and inequalities... those whose lives are blighted by poverty, illness or misfortune and the competitive ‘yummy mummies’ who drift through their days in a cushioned and blinkered vacuum.

A subtle and well-written tale of our times.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)