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.