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DELAYED REACTIONS: Author Wendy Perriam's rail journey into 'broken places'

Wendy Perriam PHOTO: Frank Baron

Wendy Perriam PHOTO: Frank Baron

Published: 16 August, 2012
Reality and dreams criss-cross in the latest collection of short stories by Wendy Perriam, writes Piers Plowright

THE top of a No 24 bus, somewhere between Pimlico and Hampstead Heath. A “know-all” father is lecturing an American tourist and his own family, including embarrassed daughter Hayley, about the wonders of London as they float by.

Hayley’s heard it all before, because it’s her father’s idea of a summer holiday to ride around London giving running commentaries on its history, architecture, and less than vital statistics.

As she inwardly fumes, she knows that this will be the last such trip. Next summer she’ll be 18 and she has plans: to escape to Italy, to the world, to freedom, to fulfilment.

It’s a typical Wendy Perriam short-story opening. But it’s equally typical of Perriam that the fulfilment Hayley longs for, in spite of the fact that she makes that escape, doesn’t materialise. The world may be your oyster, but you have to know how to swallow it.

This is Perriam’s seventh collection of short stories. She’s been writing, in her own words, “since the age of five”, including the short stories and 16 novels.

You sense that her potent mix of absurdism, sex, and religious grace, is born of a hard-fought life, healing experienced in what her latest novel’s title calls “broken places” – a partial quote from another tough-tender writer, Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.”

In fact Perriam’s gone public about the latest broken place in her life, her daughter’s recent death from tongue cancer.

So don’t expect to find yourself carried on a tide of escapist laughter through these stories, though there are plenty of hilarious moments.

Darkness abounds, but “cheerfulness”, to quote Leonard Cohen and others, “keeps breaking through”.

And often more than cheerfulness: elderly, lonely Connie snatches a kiss from a visiting plumber which is neither desperate nor sad; attractive but insecure Carole goes on a date with an Archangel that not surprisingly changes her life; outwardly successful Laura gives away a ridiculous amount of money to a beggar and suddenly knows, whatever the world says, that she’s done exactly the right thing; and taken-for-granted Suzanne walks out on her dull marriage, refusing “to settle for a half-life”.

Or does she?

Because reality and dreams criss-cross in Perriam’s fiction: a man strangles a woman driving him mad with her mobile in the title story – perhaps; Gillian, on a disappointing package holiday, throws her overstuffed suitcase out of the hotel window and dials a passion­ate French lover – possibly; run-away 16-year-old Jo escapes the sugar-daddy attentions of a wealthy club bore to be reunited with her long-lost mother in the ladies’ loo – maybe.

Whether these events are real or imagined, Perriam keeps us on the edge of expectation in a series of exhilarating rides, ideal for bus, train, the beach, or making good a dull day with a glass of something medicinal in one’s hand.

Strongly recommended.

I’m On The Train! By Wendy Perriam. Robert Hale, £19.99
Piers Plowright is a former BBC producer


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