Saturday, May 1, 2010

Constitutional - Helen Simpson

I’ve found myself reading more short stories lately. Not sure why as I’ve never been very fond of them. I’ve always preferred novels. Last weekend I read a volume of Thomas Hardy’s stories after reading this post at She Reads Novels about his story, An Imaginative Woman. Then, one of the books in my reading pile this week was Helen Simpson’s Constitutional. I know the proper way to read short stories is to read one, savour it, let the imagery work its way through your imagination etc etc. Well, sorry, I read the whole book last night. Maybe that’s why I’ve not read many short stories in the past. I’m a fast reader (when work doesn’t get in the way) & I feel guilty when I just race through a slim volume. Am I reading it properly, giving the stories proper weight?

Well, Helen Simpson’s stories are so good, I can’t stop & savour between each one. I love the way she conjures up a new voice with just a paragraph or two. She can compress a character’s past life into just a few words, dropped into the narrative in passing as the character gets on with their life. That’s what a good short story does. The reader feels they’ve just dropped in on these people for a visit. Can’t stay around for 300pp so let’s cut to the chase, fill in the background in passing almost & let’s get to the reason for the story. It’s too hard to review short stories without giving away the plot so I’ll just quote a couple of my favourite bits from this collection. In If I’m spared, a self-centred war correspondent discovers he may have lung cancer. He’s on the Underground waiting for a train, sitting next to a healthy young woman eating a bean salad,

She ate carefully & greedily, chasing the last recalcitrant beans round the plastic box with her metal fork...She must have cooked it & packed it the night before. No make-up, a bogbrush hairdo, but she knew what was good for her & she was looking after her health. Tom hated her with all his heart. He had to move away in case he took her fork off her & stabbed her with it.

In The Door, a woman finds some peace in the soothing detail of ordering a new back door when her old one has been kicked in by a burglar. It’s not until the end of the story that the reader finds out why she seems so upset. It’s not the burglary at all, but the death of her lover. She works in the living room while the tradesman hangs & paints her new door,

I had another restorative work session, concentrating well & thoroughly absorbed. Thank God for work. Save us from the obsessive mental mill which constantly grinds but never digests. Secrecy doesn’t come naturally to me, & this enforced silence was a punishment for which even his wronged wife might have pitied me, had she known about me. For the first time I wondered what she was going through, wherever she was.

There’s a lot of humour in the stories & it arises from the minutiae of everyday life. I laughed out loud when I read the passage from If I’m Spared quoted above. If I said the stories were about death, dementia, lung cancer, you might think they were depressing. The stories are about these things but they’re also about the love of a mother for her son in the little space of time she has alone with him, driving him to school. They’re about the thoughts of a woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy. There’s black humour in the story about a woman getting more & more irritated as her friends & acquaintances start dying around her. I need to read all of Helen Simpson’s books as soon as possible. If I gulp them all down & then have to wait five years for the next one, well, I’ll have to live with that.


  1. Hi. Great review. I'm adding it to my tbr list. (it's so long already I keep it on a spreadsheet!) There is an award for you on my blog. I think your blog is great! I'm told the idea is to retrieve the award, then pass it on.
    Take care.

  2. Thanks for the award Dianne, it's very kind of you. I've really only been prolific this week because I've had the week off! I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  3. Hi. I love Helen Simpson's short stories, too. Her first collection Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (dreadful title!) has some stunning stories in it. Particularly Burns and the Bankers. She also wrote a brilliant short story for a newspaper where Jane Austen and, I think, one of the Bronte sisters visited a modern book festival. Look forward to her next collection.

  4. Vintage Reading, Burns & the Bankers was the first story of Simpson's I read. It was recommended by Susan Hill somewhere, maybe in Howards End is on the Landing? I've just ordered the 3 collections of her stories that my library doesn't have (including the new one)& I hope the Austen/Bronte story is in one of them. What a wonderful idea for a story.

  5. Hi, here's the short story link - it's still available on line.

  6. VR, thank you for the link. I've just bought HS's new collection, In Flight Entertainment & the story is in there. I'll be reading it tonight.