Her Proper Duties

Tessa Hadley

  • Constitutional by Helen Simpson
    Cape, 144 pp, £14.99, December 2005, ISBN 0 224 07794 5

Parenthood happens in sections. The son’s Bildungsroman is the mother’s series of short stories: no sooner has he stopped being the free woman’s dilemma (to reproduce or not to reproduce) than he’s her fat sucking baby; then he’s a needy toddler, then a child bonding and fighting with siblings, then a boy thinking for himself, drawing away from closeness. And so on, until the parenting part is more or less over. Since her first collection was published 16 years ago, Helen Simpson’s stories have charted that succession of stages: sex and pregnancy in Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990), babies in Dear George (1995), in Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), ‘the squabbly nuclear family unit . . . awful hobbling five-and six-legged races’. In ‘Early One Morning’, one of the stories in Constitutional, Zoe savours the hour and a half spent with her interesting nine-year-old son on the school run. (They only travel – this is London – a total of five and a half miles in that time; most of it is spent in traffic jams.) Simpson writes stories about all sorts of things, but the ones about family life and motherhood set the tone for each collection. And her choice of form (she only writes short stories) may well be influenced by this material no sooner grasped than gone, these shape-changing offspring.

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