Simpson Hey Yeah Right Get a LifeIn Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is on the Landing, she quotes a friend who says “We read Margaret Drabble to feel the zeitgeist, our daughters read Helen Simpson.”

(Their daughters’ daughters might be reading Janine Alyson Young or Alex Leslie or Rivka Galchen or Eufemia Fantetti.)

In the first story in Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), “Lentils and Lilies”, Jade is revising for her A levels, reading Wordsworth and Coleridge. (This collection is sometimes titled Getting a Life; Jade believes she is on the cusp of doing so, but most of the stories are centred on women who are old enough to have a life, but who are surprised to find themselves living the one they have.)

Jade’s in a T-shirt and on her way to an interview at the local garden centre, but she’s quoting Romantic poets: somehow, in the hands of Helen Simpson, it works. (There is another satisfying story about attending the opera which uses a similar parallel structure, though with an older heroine.)

Along the way, Jade  has an encounter which drives the story outwardly. But the heart of the story is about an inward realization and shift. (This is true of the majority of the collection’s stories, which are more often about the juices in which one is stewed than the act of making the juice.)

“She sensed babies breathing in cots in upstairs room, and solitary women becalmed somewhere downstairs, chopping fruit or on the telephone organising some toddler tea. It was really suburban purdah round here. They were like battery hens, weren’t they, rows of identical hutches, so neat and tidy and narrow-minded. Imagine staying in all day, stewing in your own juices. Weren’t they bored out of their skulls? It was beyond her comprehension.”

The stories in the collection share a focus on female narrators (although at least one allows the concentration to wander across the table as a man and his wife are out for dinner), and characters do reappear (Jane is a babysitter in another story, in which the focus is on the mother, for instance), which will please those readers more likely to pick up a novel than a collection of stories.

It was her first collection, Dear George, which won my reader’s heart, but her third collection is just as good.

Contents: Lentils and Lilies, Cafe Society, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Millennium Blues, Burns and the Bankers, Opera, Cheers, Wurstigkeit, Hurrah for the Hols

Hughes Ways of White FolksLike Helen Simpson’s stories, Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks concentrates on the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes on isolated moments, as with “Passing”, which is also the shortest in the collection, in which a young man addresses his mother on paper, following an encounter in which his acknowledgment of her would have put his cover at risk.

“Since I’ve made up my mind to live in the white world, and have found my place in it (a good place), why think about race anymore? I’m glad I don’t have to, I know that much.”

Published in 1933, the world in which these characters live is starkly drawn, with lines — both immediately visible and simply understood — to clearly demarcate territory.

The characters in Hughes’ stories are most often dancing across those lines, their momentum creating the tension which makes the stories both interesting and relevant, even decades after they were first published.

For instance, Oceola in “The Blues I’m Playing” spends a considerable amount of time in Paris and other centres in which her musical talent is given an opportunity to shine (after she gains the support of a white benefactor). But eventually she returns to Harlem. “I’ve been away from my own people so long,” said the girl, “I want to live right in the middle of them again.” That is not uncomplicated.

In “Poor Little Black Fellow”, Arnie spends most of his time on the other side of the line, but as he grows older, expectations and rights and privleges change. “To tell the truth, everybody had got so used to Arnie that nobody really thought of him as a Negro – until he put on long trousers and went to high school. Now they noticed that he was truly very black. And his voice suddenly became deep and mannish, even before the white boys in Arnie’s class talked in the cracks and squeaks of coming manhood.”

In “Father and Son”, the history of their liaison, like that of so many between Negro women and white men in the South, began without love, at least on his part. For a long while its motif was lust – whose sweeter name, perhaps, is passion.”

Ordinary and complicated stories.

Contents: Cora Unashamed, Slave on the Block, Home, Passing, A Good Job Gone, Rejuvenation Through Joy, The Blues I’m Playing, Red-Headed Baby, Poor Little Black Fellow, Little Dog, Berry, Mother and Child, One Christmas Eve, Father and Son

Roy Garden in the WindGabrielle Roy’s Garden in the Wind (1975) is also preoccupied with capturing the extraordinary moments of everyday life on the page.

Any tension in the stories proceeds from the ordinary: “My mother was expecting something or other. She kept going to the door, drawing back from the windowpane the white curtain hemmed in red linen and staring long and vaguely out at the drenched countryside. Suddenly she gave a start, one hand going up to her forehead.” (“A Tramp at the Door”)

The tramp is a distant cousin. Or, is he. The question remains unanswered through much of the story, which raises matters of belonging and home, family and community, heart and hearth.

And, just as the tramp is a visitor, readers can take a seat at the table as well, listen to the tales which he tells (and receives), offering insight into the experiences of settlers and farmers.

As with all of her works, from her debut The Tin Flute to the stories in The Road to Altamont, landscape plays a vitally important role in these stories, be it a street in Montreal or a string of hills.

“And in fact that’s about all there was to it: a horizon so distant, so lonely, so poignant, that your heart was gripped by it again and again.
Luckily, a chain of little hills far to the right put a stop on that one side to the flight of the landscape.” (“Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?”)

A paternalistic tone permeates this story; it is clear that the author is sympathetic to Sam Lee Wong’s situation, and she acknowledges that interventions to assist with settlement fall into ruts and repeat unhelpful patterns, but there is a sense that this story is the story of every Chinese immigrant and that he cannot tell it himself (just as another marginalized character cannot make himself understood on the streets of the town).

Certainly Roy was no stranger to the struggle to adjust to a new environment and community, leaving Quebec for life in an insular Prairie town.  She captures some of these difficulities poignantly and realistically. And, yet, Sam Lee Wong faces challenges that Roy did not. “At that time there was a very cruel immigration law regulating the entry of Chinese immigrants into Canada. Men – a few thousand of them a year – were admitted, but no women, no children. Later the law was made more humane.” More humane, perhaps. Still, unjust.

Quite likely this story raised important questions for a number of readers some decades ago, but contemporary readers will long to hear Sam Lee Wong’s voice speak directly to them.

Contents: A Tramp at the Door, Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?, Hoodoo Valley, A Garden at the Edge of the World

Have you read any of these? Are there any story collections in your stack? Are you planning to read any this reading year?