‘The Perfect Stranger’ by P J Kavanagh – At Last, Another First-Rate Memoir

‘The Perfect Stranger’ by P J Kavanagh   (1966)   –   213 pages    Grade:  A-


I hardly ever read memoirs.  Both political and literary memoirs usually seem self serving to me, and I try to avoid them. However if a memoir does get exceptionally good press over many years, I might consider it.   Once in a blue moon I’ll find a ‘Good-Bye to All That’, Robert Graves’ memoir of his World War I experiences, which has turned out to be one of my all-time favorite books.

After reading ‘The Perfect Stranger’, I am happy to announce it is blue moon time again.   It took me almost fifty years to find this memoir and decide to read it, but the wait was worth it.

There are only a few internet references to ‘The Perfect Stranger’, but those are enthusiastic enough to realize that this book is a classic.  It is also listed in the Independent’s Top Ten list of Literary Tearjerkers.  It is actually in print and available on Amazon, contrary to what it says at the above link.

Like ‘Goodbye to All That’, ‘The Perfect Stranger’ was written by a young man in his thirties.

Kavanagh looks back to his youth with light humor, to his first teenage job as a Redcoat at a Butlin Holiday Camp, the highly structured and regimented English family vacation camp.  There is a lot of comedy in these early memories, and it is usually at the expense of Kavanagh himself.

“The problem of how to make a beginning with a girl was much discussed between us in our chalet.   It seemed insoluble because we took it for granted that nothing could be further from a girl’s mind, you had to apologize for your baseness and at the same time convince her it was a good idea.  We pondered this, getting nowhere.”

Still he meets his first girlfriend who attempts to be “more feminine than anybody ever was”.

Perhaps the reason I enjoyed “The Perfect Stranger” so much is that P. J. Kavanagh and I share pretty much the same attitude.  In the midst of a hugely important technical or military task, we are both all too likely to be sneaking off somewhere to read a novel by Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, etc.  Actually P. J. Kavanagh had the literary bug even worse than I did, because he was aiming to be a poet.

“I drifted incompetently in a world that became more and more incomprehensible.”   

He fought in the Korean War facing a seemingly endless line of enemy Korean soldiers.

“I’d no desire to make life difficult for anyone, least of all myself, and within a few weeks the boredom was insupportable.”   

Later ‘The Perfect Stranger’ turns into a romance as Kavanagh meets the love of his early life and future wife, Sally Phillips, who happened to be the daughter of English novelist Rosamond Lehmann.   Hint:  Sally is the Perfect Stranger.

So if you are looking for something light and fun but still at times sad and profound, you would do well to consider the memoir ‘The Perfect Stranger’.

Grade:  A-


11 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds amazing and I shall put it on the list. I have never heard of it: good for you for reading the Independent list and spreading the word! I am always addicted to reading books by addicted readers: I used to worry about getting stuck in a nuclear war without a book (though if I’m stuck in a nuclear war perhaps books won’t be the only thing!).


    • Hi Kat,
      That old Twilight Zone episode where the guy is the only survivor of a nuclear war and then finds a library only to break his glasses always resonated with me too. I just think a writer is a lot more interesting if they have picked up a lot from other books along the way.


  2. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on July 12, 2015 at 9:53 AM

    Knowing what I do about Sally Phillips I’m intrigued and off to search this one out. Thanks for the review!


    • Hi Kaggsy,
      Yes, I did not want to give the story away even for a memoir. Rosamond Lehmann is one of my idols. I’ve read all her novels and do believe she is one of the greats. The connection added great interest for me in this memoir.


  3. Dear Tony
    I am pleased that you have discovered this book, which we have just published in large print. Your followers can “look inside” and find more details here http://b2l.bz/jfxWAZ


  4. […] a whim, after reading Tony’s excellent review, I sent off for a copy of P.J. Kavanagh’s memoir “The Perfect Stranger”. I was […]


  5. Sounds fabulous!


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