Friday, 22 April 2016

Cockfosters by Helen Simpson Review

Helen Simpson’s latest collection of short stories, Cockfosters (heh), focuses on older people in their forties and fifties, that no man’s land that’s past middle age but not yet hit decrepit old age. Cockfosters is also, like all of the Simpson collections I’ve read, really good. 

All nine stories are named after places (Erewhon, named after Samuel Butler’s novel of the same name, is the only fictional one) which is appropriate as they’re about where their characters’ are in their lives now, where they’ve been and where they’re going, in the physical and spiritual senses. 

The title story is about two women in their fifties catching up on the friendship they’ve put on hold after years of devoting their lives to their families. It’s a heavily symbolic story as the two head back to Cockfosters station on the Piccadilly line to retrieve one of the women’s glasses; the stations they pass are like stages of their lives with the last signifying the end of something, or another transition maybe. 

Kentish Town is a lively book club discussion between female friends as they chat about their lives, families, jobs, in between drinks and comments on their selection, Charles Dickens’ The Chimes. Cheapside is an amusing look at a fifty-something lawyer who’s onto his second, younger wife, while having to double down on his work to meet all his financial commitments, regardless of his heart condition, and trying to talk his doctor’s son into the profession - surprisingly the lad isn’t interested! 

Besides being beautifully well-written - the sentences fly by, they’re so skilfully crafted – the stories give readers a very real glimpse into the lives and minds of older people who’ve had careers, raised kids, and been married for years. Simpson’s characters are brilliant because she captures their voices and identities so realistically. I’m not a past-middle aged woman experiencing menopause and struggling to keep herself invested in her decades-long marriage but I have an idea of what that person’s life must be like because of Simpson’s story Berlin. Which isn’t to say it’s depressing (though it is a little!) - it’s actually strangely compelling to read, all the more so because it’s a life I’ll never live; such is the power of fiction. 

I didn’t love all of the stories. Erewhon was too gimmicky with its gender reversal - the male is the beta to the female’s alpha and won’t the reader now understand what women have to go through in this modern world, oh please. And Kythera is about a mother remembering raising her daughter while baking her favourite Lemon Drizzle cake, the sort of saccharine drivel I’d expect from a creative writing student than someone as original as Helen Simpson. 

Simpson takes incredibly complex but everyday things like marriage, relationships and kids and comments, observes and explores them fully and imaginatively all while spinning out compelling prose. Cockfosters is an accessible but artistic collection of some really excellent subtle short stories. Helen Simpson does it again!


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