An ear for trouble

Helen Simpson's stories conjure crises out of everyday life. By Susie Boyt Dear George by Helen Simpson, Heinemann, pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Helen Simpson's new collection of short stories, Dear George, treats subjects that will be familiar. A girl writes dreamy letters, unintended for the post, to a boy she has taken a shine to at school; a couple holidaying in Italy realise they must split up or settle down; a man attempts to lure a young girl into his bed with extravagant cooking; a woman tries to persuade her lover that he is willing and ready for fatherhood.

At first the ordinariness of these situations gives the book a modest, unassuming quality. We take the same kind of interest in the fates of the characters as we might listening to the stories of other people's lives on a bus or in a pub. Even the two stories that have surreal elements, - "Caput Apri", where a disagreeable father is turned into a pig after his son spikes his coffee with a "discobiscuit" tab, and "The Immaculate Bridegroom", in which a woman marries a man who does not appear to exist - seem like overhearings. In general, the stories are extremely intimate and immediate, often narrating a moment of crisis. It may be tiny, a shock flash of sadness in a teenage romance or of more lasting consequence, as when a prospective mother realises that her life is about to change irrevocably.

Yet here the similarities with the casually told tale end. By the time Simpson has manoeuvred her characters towards their different crises, we have such a strong sense of their personalities, of the things that influence their behaviour and of the kinds of problems they are struggling with, that each set of characters seems to exist in a complete world of its own.

Although the characters often share the same preoccupations with sex, babies, independence, marriage, seduction and the differences between men and women, they do not overlap in other ways. They are warmed and chilled by different kinds of behaviour, have their own particular spheres of reference and employ different rhythms in their speech. Yet the stories gain momentum and confidence from each other. Their order, in this volume, has been particularly well thought out, so that what stands for tenderness in one tale can be brutal in the next, a pleasant yearning in one becomes a huge source of dread in the one that follows.

Simpson excels at dialogue. She has an especially acute ear for argument: " 'We've still got passion,' he insisted, fingering a heather-coloured bruise on her forearm. 'That's not passion', she said coldly. 'That's just nastiness.' "; and for the language of daydreams: "I would like to feel your hands on the back of my waist (25")... if they aren't sweaty. If you have wet hands it's all over before it's started, sorry Gorgeous George but that's the way I am."

The stories in Dear George are not driven by events or action. They are carefully built worlds where odd moments of feeling are glimpsed, where what might have been important to a different writer is often sidestepped, abandoned for something quieter and braver.

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