Cockfosters is a collection of short stories by Helen Simpson. There are nine stories all named after a place. Yes, Cockfosters is a place, a London suburb. Most of them are quite short. Berlin is more a novella, occupying almost half the book – a middle-aged couple who are in Germany to see the Ring Cycle in its entirety, a vacation planned with his mother before she died, but they could not get a refund. One is in the fictional Erewhon, as fictional as Samuel Butler’s as gender roles are completely reversed.

The stories are mostly enjoyable, though too often the conversations seem contrived, structured to say something about women, sexism, inequality, war, government, and politics. These conversations do not feel relaxed and normal. They are serious conversations. A book club discussion is actually about Tory restructuring the economy and betraying the promises of the past. A visit to the acupuncturist is about menopause and women’s value in the world.

A lot of the book is focused on the second class position women hold in society which is why so many of the conversations seem awkward. Sure, women talk about it, but this forthright expression sounds more like pronouncements on Facebook than conversations. But that is my only complaint. I like the politics, I like the people and the topics. Sometimes the prose is so beautiful for example, a wife thinking about how a long-married couple have two histories, sliding layers, “tectonic plates of it shifting over the decades together.”

Here is this from Arizona, “Sometimes when she woke from a flabbergasting dream Liz would lie very still to see if she could net it before it fled; perfectly still, eyes closed, not moving her head, as if the slightest shift would tip the story-bearing liquid, break its fragile meniscus and spill the night’s elusive catch”

Beautiful, original metaphors and prose makes me happy. Many things about Cockfosters, in particular that name, Cockfosters make me happy. I would wish for more real conversations, but this is otherwise a good collection of stories.

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