Review: Broken Places, Wendy Perriam
Posted Wednesday 3 August 2011
Guest post from Pandora, reviewing Wendy Perriam's novel 'Broken Places', shortlisted for Mind Book of the Year 2011
The blurb of Wendy Perriam's twenty-second novel, 'Broken Places', boldly states that 'you may love Eric [Parkhill, the protagonist]... or want to shake him!' In my experience, the two states were not mutually exclusive, but overall I was definitely in the 'love' camp.
Although the book starts on a fairly innocuous note – it's initially disguised as the tale of a middle-aged divorcee looking for love – I warmed to Eric instantly; his dreadful it-could-only-happen-to-me luck and hapless nature reminded me of Adrian Mole, one of my favourite ever fictional creations. Yet despite some of Eric's cringeworthy experiences, his ostensible failures and mis-fitism, as the story advances the reader's fondness for him becomes punctuated by respect and admiration – because, initial impressions notwithstanding, this is anything but a romantic comedy.
Despite the sometimes humourous tone employed in Perriam's writing, this is a serious yet highly readable novel that explores major social issues such as the deficiencies of the social care system, the integration of the socially excluded (including those with mental health difficulties) into society, and the relationship between criminality and traumatic histories.
Over time, Eric's enigmatic background is revealed in fleeting, tantalising bursts. A certain amount of spoiler-ing is required here, in order to discuss the thematic issues raised, so forgive me when I reveal that Eric was brought up within the care system. Whilst Perriam, through Eric, does acknowledge that the inherent faults of the system are not always directly attributable to the staff, the novel nonetheless provides a meticulously researched but searing indictment on a system that so frequently fails those it is meant to protect.
As the true bleakness of Eric's history begins to become apparent, the tone is both moving and stark. But for the salvation of reading, reflects librarian Eric – running book clubs both for prisoners and those with psychiatric problems – he too could have easily found himself incarcerated or mentally ill; his closeness to the plight of these characters shows a compassion borne out of near-experience. The prison chapters were some of my favourite in the entire novel – whilst cleverly exploring how socio-economic factors have a strong demonstrable connection to delinquency, the book also told a very human, touching story of emotional neglect and despairing loneliness. Indeed, throughout 'Broken Places', I lost count of the number of times that my maternal switch was flicked to 'on', where I wanted to reach out and hold Eric, to comfortingly stroke his wayward hair.
Sadly, as well as having been abandoned, Eric also suffered sexual abuse, and berates himself at times for simply refusing to see his abuser. However, he notes ruefully that the abuser listened and kept 'promises' and how he (Eric) felt like he 'mattered'. In other words, interest and attention, even in the most inappropriate way imaginable, were preferable to him than the wretched indifference of his ironically-named care institutions. At this juncture, I was almost fearful of reading on, because the tragedy of this situation brought tears to my eyes – and was scarily close to home. But the engaging writing compelled me to read on.
The far-reaching impact of abuse and neglect are further shown in Eric's interactions with his surly teenage daughter; his 'irrational' fears, entirely logical in context to him, are derided and mocked by her. Yet the beauty of this particular relationship is that, in the end, love and companionship triumph, drawing the two together in solidarity, and affording Eric a sense of redemption. The emotional and eloquently expressed scenes between the two – and even between Eric and his cat! – had the power to move me to tears all over again.
One of the best compliments I can give this book is that the second I closed it, I missed Eric. He is a believable and lovable character – full of flaws, yes, but also full of strength and determination. Above all, this is a literate, psychological novel that ably and enjoyably tells a moving tale of the everyday heroism of an ordinary person put through extraordinary trials.
Pandora's own blog is Confessions of a Serial Insomniac.
She is also the current editor of the group blog This Week in Mentalists, which provides weekly round-ups of the best in mental health blogging and media coverage.
Find out more about the Mind Book of the Year Award
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