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by Helen Simpson

I like short stories and I particularly like this collection. It is all so familiar, like a remembered anecdote, or something already seen or felt. These small ideas remain imprinted in the memory and are very affecting.
Small snapshots of ordinary lives - the school run, a fracas at a swimming pool, the grim reaper cutting swathes through friends and family…Simpson cuts down to the essentials in a spare, focused style which takes us on the direct route, quickly. These small observations span life’s passing – unexpected pregnancy, children growing up, friends diagnosed with cancer and the steady progress towards forgetfulness and incapacitation in old age.

The collection is carefully arranged and the stories progress from slightly smug and whimsical to anger and bleakness. THE TREE is a painful glimpse of ‘managing’ ageing parents. In IF I AM SPARED everything is cut down to size with a shock diagnosis of cancer, which actually does not make people nicer after all.

The pathos of failing memory hits home. The realities of a long life, steadily erasing itself as a wise, accomplished 93 year-old grand father reverts to a cot-bound infant seemed particularly cruel.

Some stories are tongue in cheek – almost cheesy as in THE GREEN ROOM, others have flashes of humour and the mnemonic aids to memory in CONSTITUTIONAL are priceless. However, mostly these are quiet, contemplative stories that strike a chord and definitely grow on you.

See Helen Simpson at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.


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