I first came across Helen Simpson’s work in 1994, the year I sat my GCSEs. Her debut collection Four Bare Legs in a Bed was given away with Cosmopolitan magazine, back in the days when books were regularly given away with monthly glossies. In some ways, it feels like the first grown-up book I ever read. Here was a glimpse into a world of adult women which I was yet to enter or fully understand.
In 2016, when I had experienced more than enough of what it means to be a woman in the world, I saw Simpson at an event in London. During the evening, she read a story from her latest collection Cockfosters. ‘Erewhon’ is narrated by a man, a teacher, awake at 4am, worrying about the kids and money and media representations while his wife snores beside him. As Simpson read the story, we laughed. It was funny hearing our own fears through the voice of a male protagonist. All this shit we worry about, it’s hilarious, right? Right?
From Cockfosters. Available to read here
From Simpson’s collection Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (my favourite, along with Constitutional), Burns and the Bankers will induce a groan of fellow feeling in anyone who’s ever thought they might expire with boredom and discomfort at a corporate do. But although we are firmly in the territory of the affluent professional classes, Simpson’s portrait of a woman trapped in a swaggeringly masculine environment which she both intuits and boggles at could be transplanted to numerous other settings in which a pantomime of sociability is enacted despite being, apparently, to everyone’s detriment.
(Hey Yeah Right Get A Life is published by Vintage. The story is also in Simpson’s 2012 Selected Stories, A Bunch of Fives)
In a way this was the story that launched me into adulthood, that gave me, aged 21, an idea of what being a grown-up might be like. It’s as bald a piece of domestic fiction as you could imagine: a couple (Jonathan – ha! – and Frances) are on holiday in Dorset with their two young children. They, Frances especially, are battered by tiredness: tired through lack of sleep, tired with each other, and tired with the limitations placed on selfhood by the mere fact of having children. This all comes to a head when Frances discovers that Jonathan, sent out on a food shopping trip in the car, has pulled over in a layby to read a few pages of their beloved Hardy. “’You’ve been reading!’ said Frances accusingly. ‘When did you read?’” The story is funny and brutal about the trials of parenthood, but ends on a moment of affirmation that manages not to seem cheap. I now have three children, and have lived out pretty much everything that happens in this story. It’s just possible that Simpson, sublime proselytizer of the everyday, is to blame.
(first read in the second Granta Best of Young British Novelists. Also available in the collection Dear George and in Simpson’s selected stories, A Bunch of Fives. Available to Granta subscribers here)