The Imperfectionists

I had two ambitions growing up, one was to be an archaeologist (I probably watched too much Indiana Jones – the Temple of Doom was one of the first movies I remember watching in a cinema), and the other was to be a journalist. In fact, my ideal job was to write for National Geographic, wandering the world, penning these fabulous, insightful stories for everyone to read. I never quite made it there. I ended up at Singapore’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, as a content producer/online journalist, updating their website with news from the wires and working on the entertainment news site (the best part is that I got to write movie reviews, which of course meant going for the press previews!). Later, I had a blast at the free tabloid commuter paper Streats – fun colleagues, a great beat (mostly entertainment, with a focus on the local film industry, and the occasional general news stories – we were a pretty small team) – which made it so difficult to see the paper shuttered. Then, after being shunted off to the Sunday paper, my journalistic ambitions stopped short. Preparing for the Tuesday morning brainstorming meetings filled me with dread. I fell out of love with journalism. My six months there were six months too long and I was so relieved to be seconded to the sub-editing desk, even if it meant working till offstone (after midnight). There at least I felt like I knew what I was doing, editing, captioning, headlining, correcting other people’s pieces and making sure they kept to the house style.

Anyway, this is all just a long-winded way of saying that this might be why Winston Cheung’s story, of all the characters in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, was one that stood out. A young, somewhat naive wannabe stringer in Cairo, he finds his orderly life besieged by a veteran war correspondent, who turns up out of nowhere and pretty much pushes Wayne around, with the promise of a co-byline. I wanted Winston to speak up, to fight his bully, to work Cairo on his own, but I think I would’ve been equally pressured, hapless. It was quite a hilarious chapter, and such a memorable one.

The opening chapter features veteran correspondent Lloyd, who reports from Paris but is now more or less out of the scene. His wife is seeing their neighbour and his children aren’t exactly all that fond of him. Lloyd is desperate, broke and unable to convince the paper to accept his story ideas. Until he pitches something that sounds pretty newsy, something a bit hush hush, the source of which is the only son who is still willing to go out and have lunch with him. But things are not what they seem… let’s leave it at that.

Each chapter is a different character’s story. And they are tied together with the background of this newspaper, founded in the 1950s by Cyrus Ott. I wish I could tell you more about the other characters – staff and one reader (she’s got a fascinating quirk) – but that would make for too long a review. And plus I always have that useful excuse – the baby is crying (ok he’s not really, he’s in his bassinet and moving his arms around and occasionally grunting, but otherwise seems kind of contented, but soon it’ll be time for a feeding).

The Imperfectionists was a fun read – great storytelling, a nice variety of characters whose stories you want to hear more of. It definitely lived up to its buzz.

6 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this too but I think I like it even better in retrospect. It’s surprising how many of the details and characters have stuck with me since I read it last year. And how interesting to hear about your own past in journalism!

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  2. I was really looking forward to your review of this one because it’s been on my “almost ready to buy” pile for a bit now. I’m glad you liked it! Good endorsement. 🙂

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  3. It’s cool to read how this book intersected with your own experience. I liked The Imperfectionists. My favorite chapters though were the ones where the characters got a little something good in the end: closure or redemption of some sort. I just felt awful for some of the other characters who get humiliated in a number of ways.

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