Molly Guinness reviews Wendy Perriam’s latest collection of short stories
Wendy Perriam’s latest collection of short stories tends to focus on the lonely, the mousy and the underachieving, and she combines serious and comic elements with varying degrees of success. The combination works well in ‘Birth Rage’, where a woman loses her temper with a self-obsessed harridan in an anger management class and suddenly finds her lifelong rage melting in the same woman’s arms. In ‘Germans’, there is sustained psychological accuracy; Alice has come to heal a 40-year rift with her aunt Patricia which developed when Alice married a German. When she gets to Patricia’s house, it is full of German lodgers; as Alice wonders who is the main carer for her bed-ridden relation, this flashes through her mind in one of Perriam’s best moments of comic insight: ‘A German performing such intimate tasks? The mere thought was blasphemous.’
Sometimes the balance is less good. In the title story a woman has a phobia of peas that has taken over her existence. The depiction of fear is good, but it is suspiciously wacky to choose peas as the object of that fear; unfortunately the denouement confirms these suspicions. Perriam’s strength is emotional accuracy, and it becomes unconvincing when she creates surreal situations. ‘Heart’s Desire’, where a transplant patient takes on the culinary, musical and equestrian skills of the woman whose heart he has just received, also falls at this fence.
The more tragic stories tend to be her best. The pain of her characters gives her writing power. This may seem like a cheap shot: focus on the tragedies, both major and minor ones over the course of a lifetime, and the reader can’t help but become emotionally involved.