Real life, in fiction at least, is supposed to involve tribulation, and because even the purest fairytales require obstacles, it had better also have grit, and dirt and (possibly) shame. But not everyone has time to read, and those who don’t are likely to be too consumed by gritty reality to want more of it. Escape is a good option, which is what genre fiction is for – you know what you’re getting and it’s not what you’re living – but constant preoccupation (with babies, for instance) makes it hard to think about anything other than what’s around all the time, even if it involves an element of nightmare. How much better, then, to have reality that is also escape.
Helen Simpson is one of those writers who make a virtue of reality by improving on it. Her stories belong to middle-aged or young women, not all of them mothers, who can just remember what it was like to be younger. She is Posy Simmonds without the social criticism, and without the pictures. But then she doesn’t need pictures:
Above her the cherry trees were fleecy and packed with a foam of white petals. Light warm rays of the sun reached her upturned face like kisses, refracted as a fizzy dazzle through the fringing of her eyelashes. She turned to the garden beside her and stared straight into a magnolia tree, the skin of its flowers’ stiff curves streaked with a sexual crimson.
Very pretty. This comes early on in her new collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, and it’s easy to see why she’s a favourite on Radio 3 and Radio 4: her fans, like many of her characters, might be juggling nappies, Superman outfits and a bit of cooking while they listen. They can surely do with soothing white noise. Not all of them, though, will manage to find the time – ‘Time! Don’t make me laugh,’ Simpson’s much put-upon mothers would say – to notice their children; or rather, they may notice but they won’t necessarily notice what it is they’re noticing.
‘Kill,’ whispered Robin, edging past the women into the tiny front garden; ‘Die, megazord,’ and he crushed a snail shell beneath his shoe. Half hidden beneath the windowsill he crouched in a hero’s cave. Across the dangerous river of the front path he had to save his mother, who was chatting to a wicked witch. He started round the grape hyacinths as though they were on fire and squeezed his way along behind the lilac bush, past cobwebs and worms, until he burst out fiercely into the space behind the hedge. She was being forced to walk the plank. He leaped into the ocean and cantered sternly across the waves.
This is a prelapsarian garden full of mantraps, with the smallest things made huge – it’s not a million miles from the strange space Malcolm Lowry created through an alcoholic haze, but here it’s done through the sheerest innocence (and why can’t the transformation happen in suburban London just as well as in Mexico?). The stories often effect, rather miraculously, abrupt changes of scale like this, which depend on the difference between the child’s perspective and the adult’s. Getting up in the morning is the greatest labour: ‘And at last she extracted herself like a slow giantess from the cluster of children, gently detaching their fingers from her limbs and nightdress.’ The witch in the garden is done with the child’s eye alone, but the giant is a joint creation; the mother sees herself through her children’s eyes and becomes something different. Writing of this kind makes you wonder how Simpson can sink to fleecy cherry trees.
There’s an answer of a sort to be found in the two previous collections, which, in part, describe a domain Simpson has made her own: a kind of Christmas-card Renaissance fancy. Four Bare Legs in a Bed, the first book, includes one story set in a spick-and-span 17th century, narrated by a young wife sitting in church next to her slob of a squire husband (‘I cannot endure him near me, with his sweating, snoring, scratching, snap-finger ways’), recalling the fun she could have continued to have if only her aunt hadn’t put a stop to her amorous frolicking, her thoughts counterpointed by a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Another, ‘Christmas Jezebels’, subtitled ‘A Seasonal Story Dedicated to St Nicholas, Patron Saint of (among Others) Prostitutes’, is set in fourth-century Lycia; the Jezebels are three very modern girls who don’t take kindly to their father’s insistence that prostitution can be an honourable profession, and nicely get their own back on him and their prospective customers. A Renaissance that extends from the fourth century BC to 1663 (and beyond, through the present, to science fiction territories) is stretching things, but the point in time doesn’t matter: the women are the same, dealing with the same dilemmas. Simpson’s stories exist in a state of perpetual efflorescence and harvest. Her favourite stages of the year, it seems, are early summer and winter; either there is colour and warmth behind closed doors and in from the cold, or life is bursting forth. Two of the stories in Dear George, the second collection, are set at Christmas, with mulled wine and plum pudding; both are revolts against paterfamilias-tyrants, one of whom is turned into a wild boar when his coffee is spiked by his son: Simpson’s Christmas cards are enactments of the idle fantasies of harassed women.
There is a large place for adolescence, which is seen as a process of empowerment that’s not quite under control; it’s like pregnancy and early motherhood as she sometimes depicts them (though naturally in these latter phases there is plenty of powerlessness as well). In the title story of Dear George, a girl, appalled at her unstylish mother and the new baby, locks herself into her room to pick apart As You Like It for homework while writing decreasingly sensible drafts of a letter to the boy she admires, extravagantly using the Basildon Bond and stamping the envelopes, flouncing backwards and forwards to the mirror and into a luxurious bath that makes her ‘all fiery lobster-coloured flesh below the water’s surface while above stayed white and sweat-pearled’. Of course, the letters, including one suggesting he avoid the word ‘cheers’ (‘Try Ciao, it’s more stylish – it’s Italian in case you didn’t know and it means the same as chiz – you look a bit Italian which is partly why I fancy you’), are, very satisfyingly, posted in her absence. ‘Lentils and Lilies’, the story that opens Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, is a reprise of ‘Dear George’: Jade Beaumont, delighted with her life and with herself, is studying for her A-levels and walking down the street feeling feline when she comes across a harried mother who, to Jade’s horror, enlists her help to extract a pea from her baby’s nostril. The newer story is not as successful, mostly because the idea of adolescent flowering is displaced from nicely timed action to animated description.
More unexpected, and very successful, is another kind of coming-into-full-being: the romance of the mother and boy-child. ‘Hey Yeah Right Get a Life’, the longest story in the book, is a day in the life of Dorrie, mother of three, a catalogue of difficulties culminating in an honest and troubled dinner out at a restaurant with her husband, Max, with Dorrie squeezed into the only dress that still fits her. Between the routine disasters she finds a few moments of quiet delight. When Robin, the youngest, arrives in the bedroom for conspiratorial company before Max wakes up, ‘he climbed into bed and curled into her, his head on her shoulder, his face a few inches from hers, gazed into her eyes and heaved a happy sigh. They lay looking at each other, breathing in each other’s sleepy scent; his eyes were guileless, unguarded and intent.’ Dorrie smoothes over the needs and jealousies of all her brood, and Max is one of them, inflaming the children and himself in a way that only she can calm. Most of the time Robin is more the lover than his father is, but it’s a time that’s about to pass. For now, she enjoys ‘the deep romance and boredom of it’, but coming into being means change, and time is short.
If you have small children, presumably, there’s even less time for writing about them than for reading about them; the stories, mostly small and neat, achieve the kind of momentary awareness that mothers doubtless need. Some have a lot to do with time. In ‘Burns and the Bankers’, Nicola sits across the table from her husband, Charlie, through an interminable Burns Night dinner. For Nicola, every minute of her life is a masterpiece of (humane) efficiency; despite the long hours they work, she and Charlie know everything the children are doing and she is infuriated that she has arrived half an hour earlier than she need have done, before they are called to eat. With the speeches and the drink the story lurches to a dilated conclusion, with Charlie and a rival sprawled across the remains of the meal, unable to land a punch in their stupor, and Nicola has her minute of comprehension.
Charlie and Nicola, for whom every second counts, have ‘over the years developed a breezy shorthand for talking about their four children, for exchanging vital information and intimate views as economically as possible’. ‘Shorthand’ is how many of the conversations in the book work. ‘Café Society’, in which two mothers, strangers who would like to be friends but would find it hard to find the space, is an elaborated example: they exchange no more than a couple of hundred words as one of the children causes havoc, but we have their italicised thoughts, everything they might say if they could stay talking. The opening paragraph explains that they have ‘decided to back that dark horse Intimacy’, a capitalisation that would seem heavy-handed and empty were it not a kind of shorthand itself. It’s part of Simpson’s particular irony, which works like the private joke by means of prearranged codewords whose meaning all mothers (and some fathers) will share. It’s also another excuse for some of the linguistic extravagances, if only in some cases because there is a code, too, for radio stories, whose audience all know the same language.
Simpson’s neatly wrapped fictions make for good collections. Mostly, they are fables, including little that isn’t needed to complete the situation. Janine, in ‘Opera’, is taken by her husband on a client entertainment evening to see Orpheus and Eurydice, an opera she happens to like and knows far too much about, at least for the husband, who doesn’t respond well when she tries politely to explain to his guests what they are listening to; it will clearly all end in tears as he storms off after the performance to find a taxi and she is shouting to him to come back. He pretends not to hear, until she screams, at which point ‘he slowed down gradually, unwillingly, then stopped and stood where he was for a few long seconds before turning back to look at her.’ It’s a small story that sits well between the wifely duty of ‘Burns and the Bankers’ and another fable of danger, ‘Wurstigkeit’ (‘the state of being a sausage’, apparently), in which two women are seduced by a shop you need a password to enter and whose lives are never quite the same again. In each collection, the pieces tend to fit together like a jigsaw, with the various permutations of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with baby/ husband/pregnancy on view. This may or may not be the reason some of the narrating voices are very false (it’s deliberate), exercises in ventriloquism rather than mediumship: to show the joinery to good effect.
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life is less obviously fabulous than the earlier collections; only ‘Millennium Blues’ follows fantasy beyond the bounds of normality, to the point where the plane a woman’s husband is travelling in crashes into their house in Kew, leading an air-traffic controller to have a heart attack, whereupon further aircraft start dropping out of the sky by the dozen. It’s a book in a lower key that doesn’t end, like the others, with a tricksy bit of self-reflexivity about narrative. It takes its tone from the title story, which is atypical of Simpson, and nothing like a fable, but quite like life. Characters appear in more than one story, so destroying the jigsaw effect. I wonder whether her fans will be disappointed. Perhaps they won’t have time to notice.