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Getting a Life
By Helen Simpson
196 pages, $22


The scene is a busy urban coffee shop, the kind where all sorts of people gather -- think Spot Coffee, Anglified. The kind of place where a small and energetic child, accompanied by two frazzled women, wouldn't be too obnoxious. At least not at first. This is territory ripe for the laser wit of Helen Simpson, and in her short story "Cafe Society" she makes the most of it.

Ben rocks backwards in his chair a few times, seeing how far he can go. He is making a resonant zooming noise behind his teeth, but not very loudly yet. Sally keeps her baggy eye on him and says, "Sometimes I think I'm just pathetic, but then other times I think, I'm not a tank."

"Cannon fodder," observes Frances.

"It's all right if you're the sort who can manage on four hours," says Sally. "Churchill. Thatcher. Bugger."

Ben, having tipped his chair to the point of no return, carries on down towards the floor in slow motion. Frances dives in and with quiet skill prevents infant skull from hitting lino-clad concrete.

"Reflexes," says Sally gratefully. "Shot to pieces."

In stories like "Cafe Society" -- throughout which Frances and Sally try, fruitlessly, to have one minute's worth of adult conversation in the midst of Hurricane Ben -- Helen Simpson stakes out her ground as England's foremost writer of what is the unique pleasure and poke-a-stick-in-your-eye pain of modern motherhood. It is somewhat new subject matter for Simpson, a London native whose previous collections include "Four Bare Legs in a Bed" and "Dear George." (The present collection was published in England under the title "Hey Yeah Right Get a Life.")In the nine stories collected in "Getting a Life," Simpson attacks the question of motherhood as Seurat attacked a canvas: with a keen eye for the true colors of things and a pointillist's attention to detail.

Take, for example, the title story, "Getting a Life," in which Simpson describes the reflections of a woman who wakes up one morning and realizes she doesn't quite recognize herself:

She was never still, she was always available, a conciliatory twittering fusspot. Since the arrival of the children, one, two and then three, in the space of four years, she had broken herself into little pieces like a biscuit and was now scattered all over the place. The urge -- indeed, the necessity -- to give everything, to throw herself on the bonfire, had been shocking, but now it was starting to wear off.

The stories in this collection are interwoven, sort of. A few of the same faces pop up again and again, but they are -- cleverly -- seen each time from a slightly different angle. Here is Dorrie, grown simultaneously frantic, bored and overweight as a stay-at-home mother of three. She is longing, inexplicably, for a fourth. Then there is Nicola, who has made full partner in her firm but who still gets questions, mostly from men, about how she ever managed to have four kids in the middle of all that. "Because I want them and I can afford them, she felt like saying; because I'm thinking of the future, when I retire at fifty; because, more life; because -- why not?"

Simpson herself has two children. In a recent interview , she said she refuses to judge women who work when their children are young, or those who stay home. "My only condemnation is for people who aren't honest, who sentimentalize," she said.

There's not a drop of sentimentality in Simpson's new collection. That's the most effective statement she could make.

Charity Vogel is a reporter for The News