Helen Simpson is an observer. In this wonderfully sharp collection of short stories, Simpson takes on motherhood; from the mothers struggling to hold a conversation in a café due to the constant distractions of their toddlers to the woman admiring how beautiful her teenager babysitter is, her focus is on females and the minutiae of their lives.
I’ve often heard Simpson’s writing described as perhaps ‘dour’ or ‘depressing,’ but I don’t think it is. She is acerbic, hilarious at times, bleak at others, but her characters are so well drawn and her gaze so bright that I can only really be impressed by her awareness, her ability to zoom in on the women scurrying about supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, changing rooms – and point out what they are really feeling and thinking. She discusses husbands, friendships, the private thoughts that women keep from each other and sometimes from themselves: in Wurstigkeit, Laura finds herself in a shop changing room anticipating with horror: “that merciless female regard which is so chilling … furtive, assessing, without lust or kindness, hypercritically alert to any sign of age or deterioration.”
Simpson manages to tap into the mindset of a range of women of all ages: the teenage Jade in Lentils and Lilies is perfectly self-obsessed: “And every day when she left the house, there was the excitement of being noticed, the warmth of eye-beams, the unfolding consciousness of her own attractive powers. She was the focus of every film she saw, every novel she read.” Jade’s character is one of the most interesting in the collection to me, as through Jade we see other characters, almost as though Simpson is giving us a double lens – her own followed by Jade’s. Jade’s mother is: “a taut figure at the front door screaming at them all to do their music practice,” and Jade regards her running of the house with scorn – though her mother treats it like a “military operation” Jade thinks that actually at times, she is quite “inefficient.”
In contrast to young Jade are the “old punchbags,” – two women in a café who are hoping for “their minds to meet” but knowing that “the odds against this happening are about fifty to one.” You can almost see them reaching for the sticky hands of their toddlers as they try to hold a conversation; Simpson’s prose conveys the distraction of the women perfectly.
Dorrie (a woman who appears in more than one story) is a mother of three who is struggling to fulfil the roles she has laid on for herself – wife, mother and maid – and Simpson shows us how her body has become almost separate from herself, as though it is owned in its entirety by the jobs she must do: Dorrie muses “Of course you couldn’t expect to remain inviolate; but surely there had to be some part of yourself you could call your own without causing trouble. It couldn’t all be spoken for.”
Simpson gives us too the ‘career women,’ – Nicola in Burns and Bankers is described by a fellow dinner guest as “hard-hearted” because she is so wrapped up in her working life and her successful career. Her characters stay with you long after you have closed the book, and in fact they are everywhere – they are all around us, all the time. One only has to walk down the street to recognize Simpson’s women; the harassed-looking mothers in Sainsbury’s, the young girls floating down the street with their headphones in, the gaggles of women crowding changing rooms and avoiding each others’ gaze. The world Simpson creates is stunningly realistic – and whether or not you find that depressing is up to you.
Helen Simpson’s newest collection of stories, Cockfosters, is out now.