Nine stories that take up the preoccupations and fixations of time's passing and of middle age and that take us from today's London and Berlin to the wild west of the USA and the wilder shores of Mother Russia.
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. Lines rise up in your mind days later ... Simpson has been conducting her thoughtful voyage round the hearts and houses of middle-class England for the past 25 years, each collection an update on the last. Her stories are steadily accumulating into a literary equivalent of a longitudinal sociological study, a chronicle of contemporary women’s experiences.
If it were easy to explain what Helen Simpson can do with a story, more writers would be fashioning such jewels. It’s along these lines: Start with the ostensible foreground — perhaps a lunch or a visit from a svelte refrigerator repairman or a recipe for lemon drizzle cake — then introduce the emotional hobgoblins that throw the characters rewardingly off-kilter ... Across the nine stories, in the leitmotif department, trepidations about turning 50 would get the nod ... The shortest story, 'Torremolinos,' is unpredictably tender, a conversation between the narrator, a triple-bypass patient sharing a recovery room with a prison inmate who has faked a heart attack to relieve the boredom of his life...It’s a wonderful premise, perfectly executed ... What more does one want in a short story besides memorable characters, comic timing, originality, economy and poignancy? And heart. All there. Done. The reader thanks Simpson’s eye and ear for such generosity.
Her sixth book, Cockfosters, moves on a stage: now the women are standing uncertainly on the brink of menopause, buying varifocals, remarking how very glad they are not to be 'doing that any more' when they see younger women struggling with small children; while the men are having heart scares or moving, with a combination of exhaustion and entitlement, on to their second wife and set of children ... The joker in the pack is 'Erewhon'...the story comes off as twee rather than challenging, in part because the rhetorical attitudes it satirises have already atrophied into sitcom stereotypes ... It’s [the] tightrope balance between our outer lives and inner expanses that continues to make her writing sing.