Choir in the blood
Wendy Perriam’s new book celebrates the positive power of communal singing
05 December, 2019 — By Piers Plowright
NOVELIST and short story writer Wendy Perriam has a new book out. Always good news, as Review readers will know from my reviews of her previous work. Her combination of wit and fast-moving plots that tackle difficult subjects full-on, make everything she writes a page-turner.
But this one, her 19th novel, Sing For Life, has a particular resonance. The heroine, Veronica, is a troubled woman, looking after a vascular dementia-stricken husband, and struggling between her loyalty to him and her need for physical and psychological reassurance.
She finds both, in spite of an ultimately disastrous love affair, and several tragi-comic misunderstandings, by joining a choir.
Here she makes friends and opens her heart and mind – like so many people, she’s been told she can’t sing and should, literally, keep her mouth shut – through the camaraderie of others in the choir and the freedom that comes from the act of singing.
The choir’s mantra is “Wrong but Strong”, and as they collectively belt through Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, and the song that gives the novel its title, her self-confidence and strength revive.
What makes this novel so timely, quite apart from telling a great story, is the way it chimes with current medical research and with the work of inspiring figures like Gareth Malone.
There is no doubt that singing is good for you; no doubt that it can lift you from despair to a kind of joy; and no doubt that – like dance, another way of combining the mental and the physical – it can be an act of healing.
I happen to know about this personally, because – full disclosure – I sing in the same choir as Wendy Perriam. We’re all cancer sufferers or cancer carers and every Wednesday evening, for an hour, we put aside our problems and our physical and mental challenges to raise the roof of a small church hall in South Kensington.
We also do gigs in hospitals and outside tube stations to raise money for the choir, as well as, we hope, entertaining commuters and tourists. This doesn’t always work: a recent performance of You’ve Got a Friend was interrupted by a very angry man who, for one reason or another, chose to challenge us and the title of the song very directly.
But it’s exciting that a fiction writer has chosen a real choir – names and places changed, of course – as a prime mover of plot and character and a transformative power in her latest novel.
Like all Wendy’s work, Sing for Life is often very funny, and the dialogue crackles along. It also contains scenes – as they say on the telly – that some people may find sexually explicit – well, they are. But nobody who reads it is likely to be unaffected by this account of the power of song and what it might do for all of us. As it says in the chorus of the title song: No matter how hard life gets, sing for your life.
• Sing For Life. By Wendy Perriam, Bravura Books, £8.99 or in a Kindle edition at £2.99 either through Amazon or www.wendyperriam.com
• For information about Tenovus Cancer Choirs go to www.tenovuscancercare.org.uk