In the title story of Helen Simpson’s fourth collection, a science teacher takes her regular lunchtime stroll around Hampstead Heath. This is her “constitutional,” a reassuringly old-fashioned concept, far removed from power-walking, jogging, or similar goal-oriented forms of exercise: “The thing about a circular walk is that you end up where you started, except, of course, that you don’t” (106). But the title also evokes corporeality. It encapsulates Simpson’s concerns in the collection as a whole: mortality, the passing of time and the persistence of cycles and routines, both natural and manmade. While the settings are superficially domestic and mundane and the tone is lightly ironical, the effect is often unsettling and the humor darkly disturbing. In “Constitutional,” as the lunch hour ticks away, the first-person narrator considers the perversities of her own biological clock. On the cusp of middle age, at the very moment when her faculties may be in decline, she has become pregnant for the first time.
Like the rest of the stories in the collection, “Constitutional” juxtaposes images of physical decay with humdrum reality. The black humor is at its most pronounced in “Every Third Thought,” which chronicles a virtual epidemic of death and disease in deepest suburbia: “ ‘They said his tumour’s the size of an orange,’ she said, blowing her nose. ‘I’d just bought a net of oranges for juicing and they went straight in the bin. I do wish doctors would keep away from food when they’re making their comparison’ ” (23).
In “Early One Morning,” the school run maps out another circumscribed route, like the trek around the heath in “Constitutional.” Taking the children to school and back again, stuck in the congestion, Simpson’s protagonist seems to be moving in ever-decreasing circles. In Simpson’s previous collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Simpson’s typical heroine was an educated, youngish woman struggling to reconcile her sense of autonomy with the demands of motherhood. Now, on the wrong side of 40, she is even more conscious that time is slipping away beyond her control.
Simpson is especially good at capturing children’s voices, suggesting in “Early One Morning,” as so often in her work, an ultimate complicity between mother and child. In “The Year’s Midnight,” Marion soothes a child who is having a tantrum at the baths, going through the well-practiced rituals of maternal optimism: “the more she, Marion, insisted that they would have a happy Christmas, the more likely it became that they all really would” (19). “The Year’s Midnight” is set in a swimming pool at the winter solstice, “and so she was also aware of swimming in the dark sea of Time with the old year wheeling wearily across the sky above her, the sun very low and weak, and somewhere beneath the horizon the unmarked infant new year waiting its turn” (11). Seasonal change, especially the coming of winter, interacts with the biological and social life cycles of Simpson’s characters.
Often, the characters are stuck in obsessive or repetitious behavior. In “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” (a title that returns to circulation, this time of the blood, a recurring image in the collection), the outraged protagonist asks everyone she meets for his or her opinion on the Gulf War. “The Tree,” the only story narrated by a man, charts the disasters set in motion by his senile mother’s fixation on the dead tree in her garden. He is a surveyor, someone who “worries for a living” (55), looking out for the telltale signs of damage. As in houses, so in humans, decrepitude awaits. This is not exactly a consoling message, but it is redeemed by the wit and energy of Simpson’s fast-paced prose.
Simpson, Helen. Constitutional. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.
———. Hey yeah Right Get a Life. London: Vintage, 2001.