A small preliminary rave about Helen Simpson. She’s an English short story writer with a low output (one slim volume every five years) who writes smart, funny, sometimes bitter, sometimes life-affirming short stories about normal people living normal lives. Her preoccupations are intimate, domestic, personal: motherhood, housework, relationships, friendships, work, work/family balance – but her themes are universal and political. Apparently Helen Simpson invented mummy-lit, but if that is so, then it’s only in the same way that Jane Austen invented chick-lit.
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life opens with Lentils and Lilies in which we meet Jade Beaumont, a teenager home from school on a study day, upstairs in her bedroom thinking about her summer tan and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (but mainly her summer tan). She’s gazing out her bedroom window upon the street below. In every fibre of her being she’s aware of her growing power: “every day when she left the house, there was the excitement of being noticed, the warmth of eyebeams…she was the focus of every film she saw, every novel she read…” Jade knows what end is up; she fingers her certainties like beads in her pocket. Here she is walking down the boring suburban road in front of her house:
She was never going to go dead inside or live somewhere boring like this and she would make sure she was in charge at any work she did and not let it run her. She would never be like her mother…with her tense talk of juggling and her self-importance about her precious job and her joyless ‘running the family’.
This is a little black dress of a crime novel: elegant, clean, smart.
Di Porteous is the twenty-six year old widow of a much older art collector. She lives in his beautiful old house by the sea and roams around the beach, listless and sad. She had really loved Thomas, her almost seventy year old husband. He had, in a Pygmalion sort of way, rescued her from a life of crime and taught her everything he knew about art.
Di’s friends are worried that all she does is mope on the beach, missing Thomas and obsessing about some human bones in the basement. (The bone thing is kind of weird – but it’s neatly sewn in to the plot.) Saul, dapper friend and art agent, arranges for Di to meet his sister Sarah in the hope that Sarah’s eccentric vitality will perk Di up. He’s right, it does. Sarah introduces Di to the joys of shopping for clothes and to a mad old grumpy lady whose son has stolen her paintings. Sarah and Di decide to steal the paintings back. Continue reading
Jerry Manville is a retired ad-man who has two ex-wives, three kids, an expanding paunch, a red 1972 Lotus and a penchant for YouTube clips in which attractive TV presenters cross their legs. More endearingly, he has a thing for fancy stationery (which he buys to calm himself down).
When Jerry and his first wife Pen got married they renovated their house in North London with their own hands, turning it into a dream home envied by all. Pen stayed in the house after the divorce but later moved into her second husband’s farm house in France (falling in love at first sight with the farmhouse, if not the second husband). Continue reading
To me Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (published in the U.S. as Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home) sounded as if it might be a collection of ‘hilarious’ letters about the everyday domestic chaos of life with small children. Highlights being, perhaps, lost nappy bags and cold mugs of tea. In TV terms, a sort of Call the Midwife crossed with Outnumbered.
It’s not like that at all.
This is a book of letters written over 5 years by Nina to her sister in Leicestershire. In 1980 Nina left Leicestershire at the age of twenty and without any qualifications to go and work in London as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers (editor of the London Review of Books) and her two sons, Sam, 10 and Will, 9. Her decision to nanny was random: it sounded like it might be a nice life. Being chosen by Mary-Kay was random too; a lot seemed to hinge on which football team she supported. Continue reading