Relationships, death and motoring connect 11 pithy stories by a celebrated British doyenne of the form.
The first, “Up at a Villa,” sets the tone of anxious middle-class discontent, when a struggling wife with a new baby and an unsympathetic husband are glimpsed by interlopers in the garden of an idyllic French summer retreat. Elsewhere, there’s a powerful undercurrent of mortality: a sudden heart attack; cancers of lung, breast, brain; even—with characteristic black humor—someone literally falling under a bus. In both “The Year’s Midnight” and “The Green Room,” Christmas equates to reminders of depression, disease and death, as well as perpetual family discord. “The Door” is narrated by a woman whose fears concerning a recent burglary mask deeper emotions involving the recent death of her lover, whose wife doesn’t know she existed. Everywhere, unions are exposed to the author’s sharply skeptical scrutiny: “structural flaws” are surveyed by an architect in “The Tree”; “the marital Black Dog” is contemplated in one of the best tales, “Early One Morning.” Middle-England’s preoccupations, like Central European au pairs and the health service, color the background, while, behind the wheel, men (often boorish) and women (often unhappy) crawl along in first gear or speed out of control, as in the title story. In Simpson’s world, a radical thought is imagining a man, a woman and their children “living happily together, justice and love prevailing, self-respect on both sides.”
A patchy, occasionally predictable collection, but Simpson and her material are, at their best, a perfect match.