This book is a very physical object, all about the craft of printing, typography, binding, design and layout. The first thing one notes, when picking it up, is its weight; good quality paper, crisp printing, deep margins, with ragged right-hand margins, exposed spine, sewn binding and tracing-paper dust jacket. The typefaces used are all designed by Eric Gill: Joanna MT semibold for the text and Perpetua for the Roman numeral chapter headings; and the randy old letter-cutter is at the centre of the story, as the somewhat old-fashioned heroine, Maud, is also a letter-cutter, and is preoccupied with his carved inscriptions dotted about Kensington and Chelsea.
While studying an inscription to the memory of Admiral Sir George Willes GCB at the entrance to Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, she is mistaken for a prostitute by a louche man-about-town, Edward, and Maud goes along with the misunderstanding. What unfolds is a rather slight tale of relationships, lettering and lashings of sex, which would certainly have appealed to Eric Gill, as he was even more obsessed with sex than Edward. He unexpectedly falls for Maud, while still having loads more sex with hookers with improbable names like Cassandra, Lexi and Allegra. The author Karen Healey Wallace says, rather vauntingly, “Lettercutting becomes not just a background, but an analogy for the search for perfection in an imperfect world.” The reader is taken down Tite Street to stand outside John Singer Sargent’s old studio, to the V&A and Brompton Cemetery, anywhere Gill’s plaques can be found.
Wallace gives blow-by-blow accounts of their straddlings, clinches and couplings, including one episode involving doughnuts and Edward’s member (no real surprises there), interspersed with some snappy, and, sometimes very funny, dialogue, but one is left with a feeling that she is saddled with the Gill factor, and that her obsession with him and how the book looks and feels has the effect of overshadowing the story.
When it comes to story-telling and relationships, Edward St Aubyn she ain’t, but for a first novel, it is an assured debut. As she herself states, “The love affair is described graphically and the graphics are designed lovingly.” This is underlined by the fact that it has been shortlisted for a couple of design awards for book production, and yet, extraordinarily, an e-book digital version is also available, which, with one sweep, erases the quintessential reason behind its facture.
The Perfect Capital
By Karen Healey Wallace
Acorn Independent Press