Constitutional, by Helen Simpson

Life-lessons in the magic of the moment
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Helen Simpson's new book of short stories is not as bleak as her previous collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, nor as exuberant as her first, Four Bare Legs in a Bed. Like all Simpson's writing it is subtle, emotional, humorous, painful and acute, but the real strength of Constitutional lies in its quiet power to evoke life's strongest sensations - love, pain and grief - in ways that are so understated they might almost be missed.

Simpson's characters inhabit worlds that are fraught. Life's busy-ness provides constant background noise. There is not much in the way of safety in these environments: relationships are fragile, there are epidemics of cancer and divorce. Some of her heroines are still buckling from recent disappointments and wounds, and cheer must be grabbed as soon as it is glimpsed.

The most ambitious tale in Constitutional is the title story, in which a teacher takes a familiar hour's walk through Hampstead Heath following the funeral of her 93-year-old actress friend, Stella. As she walks we witness her disjointed thoughts, as well as what she overhears and sees: the dim, armchair-psychotherapeutic exclamations of passers-by, the blurring of the seasons and the poignant bench dedications ("She devoted her life to others. We all know what that means").

As this Head of Science's world unfolds, we are shown what a complex system a life is when observed this closely; how intricate and mysterious. It's both sad and reassuring that this sensible sort, in her early forties, is still baffled by what her parents saw in each other, still wondering if she has anything in common with these people who shared no common ground.

During this epic walk we glean facts about her upbringing. Her father's departure when she was a small child and her mother's perfect memory somehow lead to her own current dismay at what passes for intimacy in our "I'll tell you mine, then you tell me yours" culture. We eavesdrop on her theories and uncertainties about the way memory works, her sense of her own ageing and her sorrow at her grandfather's demise, which began when the doctor asked him to draw a clock face with the hands set to five past ten - a task that is beyond him.

We learn that our walker is pregnant by her younger lover, though they have recently gone their separate ways. What will year 11 say? And she a science teacher!

This sense of a life lived on the move in an hour is very affecting and sincere, but its tendency to self-consciousness makes it less powerful than some of Simpson's slighter tales. My favourite story in this collection is the first, "The Door", in which a woman still reeling from the death of her married lover buys a new back door from a hardware shop following a break-in at her home. Simpson captures beautifully and with originality the bereaved person's thin-skinned susceptibility to kindness, and how the humility and rage of grief go hand in hand.

We see the lure of life at work on this woman, whose personal crisis is beginning to move into the past. As she experiences lovely shop assistants, steaming cafés with formica tables, professionalism, friendliness from strangers, a well-chosen display of sweets through a shop window - a sort of shorthand for British life at its safest and most prepossessing - we see her ambivalence about reinvesting in the outside world. For a moment, the complicated process of being a fully functioning person again begins to look possible, and the gratitude that follows is huge. It's a small masterpiece.

Susie Boyt's latest novel is 'Only Human' (Headline Review)