Constitutional by Helen Simpson

The grim reaper of Hampstead

In his user's guide to the short story, reprinted in his current collection Bamboo, William Boyd helpfully inventories the main variants of the form. These include "The event-plot story", "The cryptic-ludic story" and "The mini-novel story". Helen Simpson's short fiction turns out to have its own recognisable categories. She is particularly fond of the "Life in a day" approach, whereby a character uses the window of a drive to school with the children or a lunch-hour stroll to examine her existence to date, while retaining a fondness for the circulatory tale, whose protagonist, despite repeated buffetings at the hand of fate and the prospect of decisive change, ends up in much the same mental and moral condition as when he or she set out. Meanwhile, she continues, as in "The Green Room", where over-taxed, downtrodden Pamela is visited by a spectral "dedicated life coach", to wax surprisingly whimsical about Christmas.

Simpson's dialogue, her deft asides, her politely concealed fury and her distaste for the easy way out are always a pleasure, while sometimes failing to conceal a tendency to over-schematise material that could do with the space to reach its own conclusions. In "If I'm Spared" a self-centred, tail-chasing, chain-smoking foreign correspondent is thought to have lung cancer. Instantly he resolves to be nicer to his put-upon wife and rarely seen daughter. Then comes news of a mis-diagnosis - in fact the complaint is treatable TB - whereby he cheerfully reverts to type. Everything, we infer, will go on as before. The reader, while admiring the sleight-of-hand, feels slightly let down by this, irritated by the cast's inability to break out of the palisades in which Simpson has carefully enclosed them, and - worse - inclined to start sympathising with the wrong people. Granted Tom is a glib philanderer, but why can't Barbara get him something decent for tea once in a while, and why does she have to sit there wetly twisting her hair all the time?

The best pieces in Constitutional, consequently, are those in which the characters take on some kind of life of their own. The title story features a 42-year-old school teacher, recently impregnated by her absconding lover, walking on Hampstead Heath in her lunch hour to ponder other recent deaths and desertions. "The Year's Midnight" is a wonderful adult-child epiphany set in a municipal swimming pool. Best of all - quite devastating in its plucking of high emotion from the thoroughly ordinary - is "Early in the Morning", in which the unpromising three quarters of an hour of the school run becomes a kind of miniature pageant of family life.

One curiosity, even more curious than the idea that £14.99 for a work of 133 pages is value for money, is the absence of any information as to where the stories originally appeared. Short fiction invariably reflects the format and the sensibilities of the magazines that commission it. To put it crudely, you write in one kind of way for the Mail on Sunday and in another kind of way for the London Review of Books. My hunch is that the best stuff in this - as ever - highly appealing collection first had an airing in the New Yorker or Prospect: places where you don't have to worry about the man in the suit and can write as you choose. In an ideal world Helen Simpson would be granted an annuity and free childcare by a grateful government and ordered to write half-a-dozen stories a month. In the meantime, we should be grateful for what we can get.

Comments