Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

"Cockfosters" by Helen Simpson (Jonathan Cape, 2015)

In most of these stories the main character tells us the story of their life punctuated by events in the current time frame - musing on the past while having a meal or looking at a clock or waiting for an appliance to be mended. At the end of the first few stories I found myself thinking "I hope the next one's better". "Arizona" has its moments, but too few. It ends -

'Yes. And while you're getting dressed, it's supposed to be a good thing as you get older if you can put on your socks or tights without sitting down or leaning against anything.'
'What, like this?' laughed Liz, standing on one leg like a flamingo, unsteady, one arm flailing for purchase in the air, teetering, hopping from side to side, finding her balance.
'Yes,' said Mae, laughing too. 'Like that.'

I've read "Moscow" before. I thought it the best of a disappointing bunch until I read the final, longest, story, "Berlin". Adam's father liked Wagner's operas. After the father died, Adam, his wife Tracey, and his mother booked an organised "Ring" tour. His mother died before the tour, but Adam and Tracey still go. They're much the youngest in their little group, though they have grown children. At the end of each day (from Tracey's point-of-view) they assess the others in the group, the opera, the day and their relationship. The opera cycle becomes a metaphor for their marriage - repetition with variation, reduced down to Information, Quotes, Odd Facts and Vocabulary.

As in other stories there's a main narrative (in this case the holiday) involving 2 people. We are told about the narrator's past. As in a few of the pieces, there are other couples that the main characters can compare themselves with, there's a work of art that provides analogies, and there's history, but only in this story are all those elements combined. It's rich in incidental details that accumulate. Other stories look at Time as the minutes and years of a life. This story adds historical time and the sweep of legends.

Other reviews

  • Valerie O’Riordan
  • Justine Jordan (Guardian) (It’s this tightrope balance between our outer lives and inner expanses that continues to make her writing sing.)
  • Melanie White (Independent) (Helen Simpson’s wonderful new collection of short stories ... Simpson’s strongest subject, as ever, is the dilemma of women struggling to carve out meaningful lives in a world structured to benefit men)
  • Neel Mukherjee (Spectator) (Throughout the collection, focused rigorously on the August years — Mae’s term for the fifties — of (mostly) women’s lives, Simpson goes about this kind of overturning and revision of centuries-old assumptions about women and their inner and outer lives with wit, humour and a steely yet compassionate intelligence)
  • Katie Law (Evening Standard) (The clunkiest story is called Erewhon ... Simpson may be angry about what she has called “the central unfairness” that persists between the sexes but actually, having got shot of childcare and their reproductive systems, her female characters seem to be having a pretty good time.)
  • Rebecca Abrams (Financial Times) (The warmth and humour of Simpson’s writing is coupled with a sharp-eyed clarity and a steady gift for the descriptive detail. ... If something of the vitality and poetic lyricism of Simpson’s early stories is absent in this latest collection, her stories, as ever, have a sly staying power)
  • Jon Day (Telegraph) (If Simpson were a novelist, people would be much more ready to find in her work the whiff of portentous truth. But taken as a whole her short stories form a kind of distended, fragmentary Bildungsroman.)
  • Goodreads

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