Cockfosters by Helen Simpson

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Cockfosters by Helen Simpson

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A mixed bag of results from this sterling short story writer, which does not always hit the bulls-eye but certainly shows great variety.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781784701987

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This was a belated reunion for me, having been introduced to the author's snappy short story collections courtesy the very first one while at uni. Mind, it was a much more gentle and placid reunion than the one that starts this book – Julie and Philippa have had a shop-bought curry together, but have had to forsake a cultural chat for a trip haring along the London Underground chasing after a pair of glasses one of them left behind. The piece is definitely about the subject of ageing – about time passed and what might be remaining ahead – but you soon discover that not only do all the pieces here have titles that are unadorned place names, but they all concern that very theme. Can anyone, let alone Helen Simpson, sustain such a vaguely morbid topic over a full collection?

Well, yes is the answer – but that's not the same as saying the results hit a uniform quality. On her side is a snappy way with domesticity – Get my knee fixed then get the fridge-freezer fixed, that was the plan. To her plus is a gentle look at the passage of time, with a man on an operation trolley finding a happy place alongside an unexpected new acquaintance, and a woman baking her daughter's birthday cake. Definitely on the positive side of things is a fantastical look at gender-reversal, with a hen-pecked house-husband restless at night.

But definitely to my mind there was a smattering of tales that didn't fully work for me, either through milieu or politics or some other substantial element. One work here is Simpson's reaction to Dickens, and his possible thoughts on modern society – although I was left wondering how the piece could respond to the recent depression, yet while the characters could still be working they recall post-war commutes as if from first-hand experience. A man combines too much of what has come before, with a repeat of the politics, a failure to understand the feminine side of the domestic partnership, and ignorance of how the young society is – by force, of course – less career-minded. It's another successful woman – not the one married to the insomniac man in the fantasy I mentioned – that has the dodgy knee and dodgy freezer, and being a bringer of the theme as opposed to something unique she is only one of those connecting nubs as a result, and not a full piece of the jigsaw.

But what smacks you most eloquently is the author's range. First-person, third-person; comical, straight – all are compelling, whatever their brevity. You can see the scope of the book, not in looking at its own politics, perhaps, but in who published the original pieces (often before they were spuriously retitled to keep the place name theme intact) – we get works originally seen in The Telegraph and The Guardian and everywhere in between. That can only imply one thing – that writing like this is universally approved of. But you can certainly argue that there's a need for more variety, however – after yet more teachers turn up in the exclusive novella Berlin that closes proceedings, you do see much of a muchness in the class of the characters, as well as their stage in life. The blanketing theme can at times be a hindrance, but still some pieces punch their way through. And ultimately, even if I took against some of the middle-class, first-world problems herein, and sought in vain for a connection with some of the topics (an acupuncturist and her client discussing the menopause), there is talent to be seen in every paragraph.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff is distinctly American, but may well prove to be by a younger and wittier Simpson equivalent. If you've not caught up with the author to hand, however, A Bunch of Fives is more-or-less her selected best-of.

Buy Cockfosters by Helen Simpson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cockfosters by Helen Simpson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Cockfosters by Helen Simpson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cockfosters by Helen Simpson at Amazon.com.

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