A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson

As an introduction to the work of a writer this is quite a good idea.  In A Bunch of Fives (2012, 406 pp), Helen Simpson picks five stories from each of her five collections, each published five years apart.  Her first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990) received the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.  Four collections have followed at regular intervals, of which her third, Hey Yeah Right Get A Life, won the Hawthornden Prize.

The polyphonic quintet from her debut are stories of women, mostly ones trapped in some way.  The title story concerns a woman who can only find refuge from her ‘censorious turnip’ of a husband in her dreams.  She complains greatly of his jealousy, although she is having an affair, as the increasingly give each other ‘furtive glimpses of hatred’ that are ‘frighteningly hearty.’  In Good Friday, 1663, Simpson has great fun with a downtrodden young wife of an older country gent, ‘thrown away in haste to clodpoll squire.’  Listening to parson Snakepeace given a deliberately nasty sermon, her thoughts drift to a trip taken to London with her Aunt Champflower.  There she meets Celadon and has an affair where ‘every vein of her body circulates liquid fires.’

The stories are funny, too.  Simpson can do the everyday comedy that comes with the attention to everyday speech and also a more knowing, writerly humour.  When a curmudgeonly old woman is reminded that her daughter visits every fortnight she spits back, ‘only because she is a social worker.’ The question of having a baby hovers over the stories, and the selection is rounded out by Labour, the account of a woman’s childbirth in the form of an Elizabethan drama, complete with two choruses of midwives (the birth takes that long).  Her ornate weather metaphors give way to baser cries of pain while the chorus complain of shift work and ‘long training with no money at the end.’

As we move through the collections the same preoccupations of marriage, childbirth and domesticity are thrown up.  Even when we are given characters such as the conceited teenage Jade, fond of words like ‘ciao’ and ‘banal’ and fighting off boredom by looking for the ‘juicy bits’ of Shakespeare, or two old women meeting for the first time in half a century, the trajectory of married life is always to the fore.  Simpson’s characters are often emotionally exhausted, physically shattered mothers who struggle with ‘one hundred different ways with mince’ while children cling to their legs.  The support they receive from their men, often out at work, can be minimal.  Their vitality is leeched away by the thousands of quotidian concerns of rearing children until they resemble ‘old punchbags’.  They are often clever, vibrant women who want to work and experience more of the world.  However, aching love will not let them give up for the ‘expenditure of countless megavolts of the vicarious and emotional and practical energy involved in having someone else look after your babies…’

This isn’t to say that we are flitting from kitchen sink drama to aga saga.  In a jokey question and answer style introduction, clearly all written by Simpson, she says that what really interests her is ‘how men and women (and children) live together,’ and that the way ‘parenthood gender-politicises relationships’ is often a marginalised subject.  In Burns and the Bankers, a successful lawyer sitting through an interminable drunken Burns night with her fellow ‘passengers on a lifeboat’ is told by an otherwise reasonable colleague that ‘family man’ is the ‘euphemism for a lazy bastard not pulling his weight.’  In Hurrah for the Hols, an exasperated mother of three despairs at the gender imbalance after an attempt at discipline by her husband ends in their having an argument:

Just try doing it all the time before you criticise, not only for a few hours or days, she reflected, as she reined herself in and wiped tears from blubbing faces and assisted with the comprehensive nose-blowing that was needed in the wake of such a storm.

By the time of In-Flight Entertainment another concern, that of climate change, dominates the selection of stories.  There is Diary of an Interesting Year, a dystopian 2040 with rationing and rats and running away to the countryside, trying to survive off hedgehog.  The Tipping Point has an academic reflecting on a relationship that didn’t survive because of her partner’s refusal to fly the distance between them: ‘Selfish miles…, We are destroying other people’s lives to do this.’  In Geography Boy, a love struck student couple bicycling around France come to blows on global warming.

If the writing suffers it is because it can be too knowing, too clever, too full of references and overwrought metaphor.  In Heavy Weather, Frances and Jonathan are on a holiday from hell in Dorset with their two young children.  They visit Thomas Hardy’s house with Jonathan confessing that Jude the Obscure is still his favourite: ‘The tragedy of unfulfilled aims.  Same for anyone first generation at university,’ he confesses to his wife.  Simpson too is first-generation university and I think it shows in the inclination to always go for one more reference or the too clever by half metaphor.  Sometimes this can be funny as when two young lovers forced to sleep in separate old iron hospital beds in a rented flat hold hands ‘across the divide like characters in some terrible play by Samuel Beckett.’  It can also be baffling, like when a character announces something in a ‘Rousseauesque’ fashion.

Yet, throughout the selections, Simpson’s prose is often warm and lush and limpid with fresh detail.  A bed stands ‘as high as a horse, in layers like a mille-feuille slice’, while a cat ‘pours itself from a fence’ in the ‘menthol cold’.  After these tasters I would like to read more of Simpson, particularly the collections Hey Yeah Right Get a Life and Constitutional.  Not as full of the heavy handed writing or the global warming didacticism, they were the tenderest, funniest and truest examples of the kinds of lives that many people live everyday and which don’t get written about enough.

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