Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart is one of those books I pre-ordered and then kept on my TBR for years afterward. Stewart is one of my all-time favorite fantasy writers, but he has gotten away from writing novels in recent years, and I don’t know if he’ll ever write another. These days, he writes interactive fiction and “mixed reality” games. My response to this change in his career was hoarding this last novel, waiting for the perfect time to read it. Rejoice! The time is now!!!
This review contains some plot spoilers for this 2004 novel.
Perfect Circle, which I belatedly learned was named for the R.E.M. song, fits this month’s theme, “Blue Collar,” like a glove. Protagonist Will “Dead” Kennedy grew up in Deer Park, a suburb of Houston mostly occupied by workers at nearby chemical plants. Most of his family members still live and work in the area. Will decamps to Houston proper, where he lives near his ex-wife Josie, his daughter Megan, and Josie’s husband Don.
Will has never gotten over his divorce or moved on with his life; he works a series of retail jobs while trying to stay ahead of rent and expenses. He only feels joy when seeing his daughter once every two weeks, and clings to the ghost of his marriage. In parallel to the gray drabness of his daily life, Will sees ghosts everywhere, and sometimes ghost roads that lead to unknown lands; he can recognize ghosts and ghost roads only because he sees them in black and white. Will has to learn how to deal with the presence of ghosts in his life, both real and metaphorical.
On several occasions, he sees the ghost of one of his uncles, who was vaporized in an industrial accident when Will was in elementary school. Though the chemical company was at fault, his uncle’s family was not compensated for their loss of income, a stark example of how corporations victimize workers and through them, their families.
Eventually, Will learns or rather is taught to monetize his ghost-spotting skills, but the main theme of the novel, to me, is depression. Will has a constant sense of futility; he can’t advance because he doesn’t have enough education or the means to obtain it. He has no examples on how to get ahead in life except for one cousin, who learned about computers while in Boy Scouts. A loner, Will is reluctant to reach out to his family when the book opens. Part of his journey is realizing, as the story progresses, that he has that resource, and that he has the ability to help his family in return.
Domestic violence is also a theme. Will’s favorite cousin was murdered by her boyfriend in her early twenties, and Will sees the ghost of a young woman murdered by a more distant cousin, Tom Hanlon. Will manages to escape being killed by Hanlon in his turn by causing a deadly fire; he’s subsequently haunted, and taunted, by Hanlon’s ghost, who exacerbates his fears that he or former Marine Don will harm Josie (spoiler: she makes it out of the book just fine).
There’s a lot going on in this story, but thanks to Stewart’s lyrical prose style and period-specific, location-specific significant detail, I read the entire novel in two days, unable to put it down. I highly recommend this author and this book; the unexpected ending felt like a transformative gift.
Perfect Circle was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist; a Book Sense Notable Book; and Best of the Year at Booklist, Locus, and the San Francisco Chronicle.