A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson

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A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: A selection of five stories from each of Simpson's five collections, this volume proves she is a writer at the top of her game. Her chronicling of domestic family life is unsurpassed. The stories are funny, charming, honest, sad, accurate and beautifully written.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-0099561576

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I will come straight out with it at the top of this review and state that I am a big fan of Helen Simpson. So this book, which is a selection of five stories from each of her five collections, is right up my street. All I’ve got to do now is convince you that you need to read it too!

Simpson is not a particularly prolific writer. Her collections have appeared every five years since 1990. But what she lacks in quantity is made up for by quality. These are stories which have been carefully structured, honed and polished. They are deceptively light and easy to read, the characters recognisable and clear, with depth and layers to their lives, the narratives compelling and real. All of which shows a literary skill to be admired.

Each volume of stories has an overarching theme which most of the pieces adhere to, and in this selection the reader gets a flavour of those themes. So in Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Dear George Simpson deals with relationships and pregnancy; Hey Yeah Right Get A Life is mainly about mothers with very young children; in Constitutional and In-Flight Entertainment older children, elderly parents and the preoccupations of middle life. There are pieces which do not conform to these themes - Diary of an Interesting Year, for instance, is an apocalyptical vision of the future post-climate change – but there are enough stories which do fall into these categories to enable the reader to see the volume as being the preoccupations of a woman as she grows into adulthood and matures into middle age.

Simpson, to my mind, is one of the best contemporary chroniclers of womanhood that I’ve read. She manages to get under the skin of her characters in a way that makes you feel you know them and completely understand their anxieties, at each point in their lives. The juxtaposition in this volume of Hey Yeah Right Get A Life and Burns And The Bankers sums up, for me, the pros and cons of stay-at-home versus full-time working motherhood, without making a judgement one way or another. Café Society and Hurrah For The Hols pinpoint what it feels like to have small children. This is a description in Heavy Weather of a mother who unexpectedly catches sight of herself in the mirror: …she gave a yelp at her reflection. The skin was the colour and texture of pumice stone, the grim jaw set like a lion’s muzzle. And the eyes, the eyes far back in the skull were those of a herring three days dead. Horrifyingly accurate – but also beautifully written and funny.

Simpson is often accused of writing too much about children, a criticism that she refutes in the interview that introduces the volume. I don’t believe that writing about children and family relationships is in any way a flaw – I very much enjoy those stories that dissect domestic life with such scorching accuracy. I don’t think there are enough writers who focus so sharply and honestly on the domestic arena. However, not all of the stories are about family life. I had not read The Phlebotomist’s Love Life, which muses on how political beliefs impact on relationships. In Constitutional Simpson writes heart-breakingly about old age. And in Geography Boy she returns to young love, again shot through with politics.

Helen Simpson is a writer at the top of her chosen game. I think that for anyone who wants to know what it feels like to be a woman (admittedly, a middle-class, predominantly urban, white, educated woman) at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, then this would be no bad place to start. The stories are funny, charming, honest, sad, accurate and beautifully written. Who could want more than that?

If this book appeals then you should try In-Flight Entertainment also by Helen Simpson.

Buy A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Bunch of Fives by Helen Simpson at Amazon.com.

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