Robert Hale, £18.99, 304pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Broken Places, By Wendy Perriam
Halfway through Wendy Perriam's first novel in eight years – in the interval she has devoted herself to the unfashionable genre of short-story writing – I began to suspect she was heading for a happy ending. Hardly earth-shattering with any other author - but Perriam has never been one to pander to expectations. Her darkly comic novels about insecure, ill-at-ease, marginalised, self-loathing and apparently grey figures from the suburbs usually conclude, at best, a few degrees short of utterly bleak.
Yet here is a classic Perriam creation: Eric Parkhill, a red-haired librarian, abandoned multiple times by his mother, his foster parents, his wife and even his child, living alone in a dark basement flat in a down-at-heel part of London, surrounded by noisy neighbours. Suddenly, against all the odds, he finds love at 44 with the warm, sensitive, homely, cake-making Mandy, whom he has met at a misfits' Christmas Lunch (she was dropping off a gateau). She seems so well-adjusted – from a happy family, full of empathy, get-up-and-go and definitely a glass-half-full type. They are even having vigorous sex – all described in cheek-reddening detail, another Perriam trademark. To top it all, Mandy had just announced she is pregnant with Eric's baby.
But in the second half of Broken Places, it becomes clear that Perriam has simply been playing with her readers, tempting us to lay aside all past experience of her writing. And playing with poor old Eric too, for at heart there is no such thing as contentment and inner peace in her angst-ridden view of the world. Small mercies such as the companionship of a cat on lonely winter's evenings are the best that we can realistically hope for. Eric's phobias – he doesn't fly, drive or swim – come back to haunt him, and leave him standing on the outside, staring in as others apparently swan around the world taking for granted what he has been tempted by Mandy into thinking can be his as well.
I'm making Broken Places sound so downbeat that only the fiercest optimist could make it to the end without resorting to anti-depressants, but it isn't. Perriam's pessimistic take is more than counterbalanced by a redeeming gift in her oddball sense of humour. Her novels are very funny, and this one is no exception.
It is a sense of humour so black and absurd that it can take a few chapters to appreciate. And it brings with it a rawness and a deliberate lack of polish which can initially jar a bit, but which slowly becomes addictive. Perriam is, it is often said, one of our most underrated writers. With this return to full-length fiction she deserves, like Eric, at least a glimpse of wider appreciation.
Arts & Ents blogs
What a wonderful way to end this momentous series in the 50th year of Doctor Who. From the start of ...
Let's talk book blurbs, those quotes you get, usually from other writers, that are meant to entice y...
Fela Kuti, Jewish food and The Great Gatsby are just some of the reasons why the rainy weather ahead...
- 1 Heading for America? Prepare for the longest US immigration queues ever
- 2 Boxing: Carl Froch slams fellow Brits for sparring with Mikkel Kessler
- 3 You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
- 4 David Cameron goes to war with press over 'swivel-eyed loons' slur
- 5 It’s official: thanks to Stephen Hawking's Israel boycott, anti-Semitism is no more
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.