In Constitutional, Helen Simpson visits various characters as seemingly small events make a more significant impact in their life. It is a short book, 133 pages with nine stories, focussing on characters that are in Midlife.
Opener The Door looks at the difficulties of ordering a new door after a break-in. The stilted dialogue between the unnamed protagonist and the door fitter Matthew both take care in their work, hanging and painting the door for best fit, giving a much-needed sense of security to the homeowner. The spare details in the writing about the break-in hint at a lot more going on under the surface.
This Year’s Midnight finds Marian at the Swimming Pool, reflecting on life at Winter Solstice. She sees the other women her age complaining about swimming, the impact it has on their bodies, and as the story progresses, she comforts a young child, makes a connection of sorts with the child’s mother, going home to the Czech republic. Their conversation is both brittle and also caring.
Every Third Thought is set within a family group, going through a series of deaths and illnesses, which happens to every family. The ending, which sees the protagonist losing a leg due to an accident, the time she spent dwelling on, and worrying about things that never happened are bought into sharp relief.
Early one Morning finds Zoe in the car, talking to her son about not swearing before opening up the story’s focus, looking at life, friendships, and how big things always come back to the small things.
If I am Spared finds Tom, a philandering heavy smoking, heavy drinker man, who finds a new love and regard for his long-neglected wife when he believes a cancer diagnosis is forthcoming. When he gets the all-clear, though, he, like the reader, knows he will be going back to his old ways, unchanged and unrepentant.
The final story, Constitutional, is probably the most accomplished in the collection. It focuses on a walk taken by an unnamed protagonist, walking home, following a friend’s funeral. The story is her internal monologue, musing on friendships, death, crossword clues, and overheard conversations.
Constitutional is Helen Simpson fourth collection of short stories and shows some fine developments in one of the Short Story forms more accomplished practitioners.
Reviewed by Ben Macnair
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, ISBN: 9780224 077941