Wendy Perriam writes beautifully, but what especially takes her out of the ordinary is her extraordinary empathy. Her people — well, her women, for few men come well out of these stories — are never simply what they seem on the surface. The well-paid advertising creative carrying upmarket carrier-bags looks like an unthinking Sloane, but underneath her fashionable carapace she wrestles with the moral dilemmas about beggars that plague most of us. In the heart of the shuffling octogenarian is a passion for her fiancé that burns as brightly as the day in 1941 when he went down with HMS Hood. The teenager thirsting for adventure and freedom from her didactic father finds surprising truths when she flees the stultifying nest. The defeated, redundant balding executive metamorphoses into an alpha male when he deals decisively with the infuriating phone pest on the train to Charing Cross. Or does he?
Many of her central characters are girls or women trapped by poverty, fear or convention, and while some of them can’t escape, others are able to break their bonds and soar away because they yield to an impulse or lose themselves in their imagination. Perriam has known much torment in her life and has plumbed emotional depths. It is only a few years since her only child, the mother of two young children, died of cancer, and she herself has always lived with the terrors and doubts caused by her repressive convent boarding-school. Her awful experiences have given her a fellow-feeling for the weak and the anxious that gives her stories authenticity and depth, but her humour and appreciation of the joys that generosity, kindness, courage and good sex can bring ensure that hope has its place in a hard world.
Perriam has suffered much from her harsh religious upbringing — a crisis of faith led to a breakdown and suicide attempt. Yet though she is haunted by a vengeful god, she is also brilliant at describing the spiritual. The Roman Catholic Church owes Wendy Perriam: she looks starkly at its glaring faults, yet her empathy gives her understanding of those with faith.
One story concerns Helen, an agnostic church-hater and abandoned wife struggling with painful cancer, who has to visit Westminster Cathedral to view the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux in order to report back to her pious mother. She reacts contemptuously to “the contrast between the pilgrims’ shambling shabbiness and the richness of the cathedral itself”. The moving account of how the ensuing experience brought her transformative grace is a little miracle in itself. And the story of Carole, who takes charge of her life with the help of her guardian angel, made me positively jealous that such life-coaches are unavailable to us atheists.
Perriam describes the short story as “a one-night stand, as against a long-term relationship, but, however brief the experience, it should still be passionately involving.” This collection nobly fulfils that aspiration.
“I’m on the train!”
Robert Hale, 224pp, £19.99