‘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’.