The Queen's Margarine
by Wendy Perriam

Robert Hale
Sixth Collection

"She imagined them now, straddling her body, or drawn up around her waist; the feel of his hot, sweaty skin as he thrust and threshed against her. Simon made love in vivid, flaunting colour, marigold, electric blue. Was that why he had gone- because she couldn’t match his passion; was a ‘magnolia’ kind of lover: tepid, safe and boring?"

Reviewed by Angela Readman

The Queen’s Margarine is Wendy Perriam’s sixth short story collection, and the first I’ve read. Don’t be fooled by the quirky title. Published following the death of her daughter, the fourteen stories in the collection deal with emotional crisis and loss.

The first story Double M (my favourite in the book) is about an elderly widower and his life after the loss of his wife. The story plots the grief process, from the mundane issues of growing accustomed to housework, to its profound loneliness. Sympathy cards are described as "ghastly things, with lilies on the front, or disembodied praying hands." Anyone who has suffered loss can relate, and yet, somehow reading about this isn't as grim as it sounds. Perriam casts light on mourning; her playful way of revealing heavy emotional truths makes the work easy to read. In Double M these take the form of the beautifully surreal scene of Aubrey confronting his late wife's porcelain figurines.
OK, I know I should have dusted you, but that was her job and she's dead!

The Spanish Beauty Queen winced; the Queen of the May pursed her lips in shock. They preferred more tactful words for death : depart this life, pass over, meet one's maker, join the angels, go to one's true home- all prissy, lying euphemisms.
Loss is a recurrent in the book, as is adultery. Prickly Pear visits a woman after the death of her father, whilst in Turning Point a woman buries her feelings of loss about her husband's dementia with adultery. Most of the stories are in third person and are traditional in structure. They depict a point in the life of a character and end with personal epiphany. A classic Perriam character is a woman of a certain age. She is conflicted by emotions, loyalties and temptations.

Tulips is the story of a librarian who becomes enamored with a new image of herself after being asked by a poet to research tulips. The piece conveys Claire being swept off her feet and into the mental terrain of an affair. There is a bloom to the prose, Claire's feelings are conveyed by an almost erotic description of the garden flower.
While she waited for the iron to hear, her thoughts returned to last night's dream- a perculiar, surreal dream, in which she was being born from a tulip's cup; expelled into the world by gently pulsing, pushing, orangey-yellow petals.

I really enjoyed considering the history of tulips within the story, the intimate description was a touch that made the familiar scenario of a woman on the verge of an affair feel fresh. It is such details that keep Perriam's fans coming back year after year. Her work is racy, but seldom too graphic, her character's face crisis but none so great they feel overwhelming. Heroines are plagued by anxieties, yet often make fun of themselves. In the midst of crisis, peculiar worries, comic observations and quirky description prevent the pages feeling too heavy to keep turning.

I didn't have a problem with the universality of the sorts of problems Perriam's heroines face; it is where the heart of stories are. However, personally, I'd have enjoyed some variation in the location of the stories. Scenes usually take place in swish apartments or neat houses in suburbia. Characters worry about the opinions of their neighbours and getting dinner cooked. They enjoy the sort of lifestyles I've only, personally, seen in magazines or on English TV sitcoms. After a while, I longed for a slight change in scenery, but I kept reading. Circumstantially, the lives of Perriam's character's may be a little too cozy for me, but there was nothing comfortable about their self doubt and anxieties.

Margarine depicts a woman haunted by painful memories of school, revived by an invitation to a reunion. Whilst I couldn't quite empathize with Margery feeling inadequate because she didn't bring a picnic basket to the reunion, but supermarket pasta salad, I did have sympathy for her self doubts and insecurities. I found myself rooting for Margery, as I did for many of the characters in the book. Sometimes I was pleased with the outcome of their predicaments, other times, I was frustrated. Occasionally, the women are passive; they don't always learn or do what seems wise. This was something that made the cosy settings of the work easier to forgive. The lack of a guaranteed happy ending made the work feel more real.

Although The Queen's Margarine differs to the sorts of stories I usually buy, it was surprisingly addictive to read. The writer's playful observations kept me engaged enough to read each story right to the end before putting it down. That's not always something I can say. Perriam is an acclaimed writer with undeniable success in writing for a particular reader demographic. I'm not sure I'm her market, but I've recommended this book to my mother. I know she'll find it a delightfully riveting read.

Read a story from this collection on (PDF)

Angela Readman secretly loves short stories. She won Inkspill’s short story competition, came 2nd in The Short Story Competition 2011 and has had work in Southword, Crannog, Fractured West, Pank, Metazen, Pygmy Giant and The Journal. Her poetry has been commended in The Arvon International Competition, a winner of Ragged Raven and published by Salt.
Angela's other Short Reviews: Flannery O'Connor "Complete Stories"

Mary Hamilton "We Know What We Are"

Craig Cliff "A Man Melting"

Rachel Kendall "The Bride Stripped Bare"
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Wendy Perriam is an English novelist and graduate of the University of Oxford who  wrote her first novel at eleven. She has had sixteen novels published and seven short story collections. Her work has received critical acclaim and she has been described as "a writer of authority and skill, with a wicked ear for conversational quirks" by The Sunday Times. In 2002, she won the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award for Tread softly.

Read an interview with Wendy Perriam