Before I get stuck in on matters short-fiction related I thought this would be a good time to take a look at a recently-published collection of short stories. I have known and loved Wendy's writing for quite some time now and I know I am not alone in lamenting the non-appearance of a Wendy Perriam novel for a while. (Publishers; what is the matter with you?) Fortunately, for us Perriam-deprived readers, she has been quietly writing and publishing short stories.
The Queen's Margarine comprises fourteen compelling stories and I can't think of a better introduction to the shorter form for anyone who doesn't make a point of reading it. They are all traditionally constructed short stories (I'll go into what I mean in more detail in future posts) which doesn't mean they're formulaic or 'samey'. They each feature one character we meet at a particular moment in their lives. The story shows how that person handles the problem life has handed them. Perriam's characters are all the kind of people who we rarely notice. Most lead dull routine lives, many are jaded, some are angry, others self-deluding. How they deal with the hand life deals them is often surprising and triumphant. But not always. A happy ending may be nothing of the kind.
If this makes this anthology sound a dull, grey read. It's not. Perriam's greatest talent is her wicked and subversive sense of humour that bubbles under the surface, not to mention an all-pervading air of the surreal. You never quite know where you are with Wendy and she delights in tripping you up just when you think you know exactly what is going to happen.
In my future posts on the short story I will mention, more than once I'm sure, the importance of the 'Epiphany.' That moment of change; that flash of perception that all short stories require to a greater or lesser extent. Some epiphanies are sublime. In Turning Point, a woman snatches a few hours with a lover every month or so as a break from caring for her husband who has dementia. She is full of guilt but relishes those few hours of freedom. But soon her afternoons of physical passion become as much of a chore as being a full-time carer. When the chance comes for her to break the cycle, she grasps it and for the first time in years is aware of the world beyond her limited existence and that that world is without deceit and brings her a sense of freedom.
In On The Road, a travelling salesman suffers humiliation in a seedy hotel which compels him to leave his old life behind. In Prickly Pear, a woman clearing out her father's house after his death, learns her own true nature. River Heights ends with the protagonist realising that her rise from rags to riches was built, not on her own strength and determination, but selfishness and lies.
In some ways it's a daft exercise to pick out my 'favourite' stories from this collection but I thought I'd choose one which I think highlights Wendy Perriam's particular talent as a writer as well as illustrates what I believe makes a classic short story. A dog follows Adam home from the pub one night. It's not a mutt. It's a bichon-frise, a ball of female fluff he calls Charmayne after a girl he adored but never won and has remained his ideal of feminine perfection ever since. And the little dog clearly adores him and, for a while, he adores her too. That's all a man wants, isn't it? To be loved unequivocally? Unlike his last girlfriend who left him. We feel sorry for him. Adam's a good guy. One of the lads. Likable, uncomplicated, straightforward. He is decent; he does his bit to find its owner but--and this is the first hint that Adam is not quite as straightforward a chap as he likes us to think--when that owner eventually turns up, he pretends he no longer has her. In fact, his behaviour towards the owner is unpleasant, but we forgive him because as we know, he's fallen for Charmayne. But slowly but surely, love turns to indifference, to contempt and he first neglects, then ill-treats and finally gets rid of it, only to consider himself satisfied with his unattached status.
What changes throughout this story is our perception of Adam. We like him to begin with , we sympathise with his plight, we are amused by his dilemma, but soon the mood darkens. His attack on poor innocent Charmayne is shocking in its simple sickening brutality. Perriam uses plain, direct, language. He beat the dog. Without the slightest compunction. In fact, it was lucky to escape with its life. That is the moment of change. The epiphany. Adam hasn't changed. We merely see him for what he is. A brutal, selfish, self-pitying, nasty piece of work.
I could take each and every one of these stories and talk about them--at length. You will be relieved to hear that I shall spare you. Instead, try them for yourself. Each one is a master-classes in the art of the classic short story. But don't that let that put you off. They're all entertaining reads. You won't find this collection on book-shop shelves but your library should have copies. And while you're at it, seek out her other collections-- and her novels. Please.
And if you do nothing else, do take a look at her website. It's one of the best author webistes I've come across.