New fiction: Joanna Walsh’s short story collection
In ‘Vertigo’, the writer highlights familiar worlds as they are about to fracture
Things are rarely as they seem in Joanna Walsh’s fractured episodes about everyday life. Her startling second collection recalls, in more than one of the 14 stories, the words of TS Eliot’s Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all: That is not it, at all.”
In Vertigo, the worlds we encounter are both fey and familiar. Women who appear connected are in fact alienated and adrift. Unsure of their roles and their willingness to inhabit them, they are cut off from the self.
With her precise and minimalist prose, Walsh pinpoints their wriggling. As their inner voices are unlocked, a dizziness emerges, the loss of equilibrium evoked by the title: “Vertigo is the sense that if I fall, I will not fall down towards the earth but into space.”
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The stories in Vertigo are by turns funny, surreal, modernist, remaining at all times accessible. Alienated as the voices are, they let the reader in. Many of the shorter pieces read like prose poetry, from the prayer-like wishes of an alternate life in And After to the topsy-turvy world of Young Mothers, where mothers are “younger than our children: the children that had birthed us”.
Time is elastic in the collection, as elsewhere mothers wait endlessly for news in children’s wards or wives contemplate far-flung infidelities. In Half the World Over, a writer away for a conference analyses her need to always be in two places at once, how “time, when it is limited, is much more beautiful”. New Year’s Day offers a razor-sharp zeitgeist vignette: “Everyone smoked, or used to smoke, but everyone also, or instead, did – yoga. Everyone was younger than me, even those who were older.”
In the title story a mother feels left out of a family holiday abroad. Her husband makes unilateral decisions with potentially dangerous consequences, her teenage children have left her behind, literally silencing her: “They take the words out of my mouth, which I tasted for such a short time after I snatched them from the generation before.”
The power of language is examined in various ways. In the excellent Claustrophobia, an adult daughter makes repeat visits to her childhood home, culminating in the death of her father: “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French.” Mothers, daughters and hilariously represented sisters-in-law come to life in a house where “everyone is losing it”.
Walsh is a British writer and illustrator whose work has featured in Granta and Guernica, as well as being anthologised in the Best British Stories 2014 and 2015. Fiction editor at 3:AM Magazine, she runs the Twitter hashtag #readwomen. Vertigo is her second collection, following the acclaimed Fractals from 2013. Published in America last year by feminist micropress Dorothy – the imprint that launched Virginian author Nell Zink – Vertigo featured on the best-of lists of Flavourwire, The Millions and The Huffington Post. This month’s European release by Tramp Press comes with a blurb from Claire-Louise Bennett on the cover, an appropriate choice given the similarities in style and voice.
Upending the familiar from the outset, Walsh begins her collection with an ending, Fin de Collection, a wry jaunt through Le Bon Marché’s autumn fashions which wrong-foots the reader in the opening lines. “Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.” Biting insights into the fashion industry and its manipulations sing off the page: “In 35 degree heat, we bury our faces in wool and corduroy. We long for frost, we who have waited so long for summer.” A nod to Balzac notes that it’s the upkeep as opposed to the initial investment that makes beauty so expensive.
In Vagues, there is droll humour as the narrator’s logical voice breaks down her companion’s irrational response to slow restaurant service in a style that recalls the Shakespearean fool. As the inner turmoil that has led her to dine with this boorish man is revealed, the focus shifts from surface behaviours to deeper psychological motivations: “He wants to punish someone for the oysters’ slow pace.”
Certain themes are woven throughout Vertigo: women as the second sex, consciousness as friend or foe, infidelity, body image, motherhood. There is a spotlight on the absurdity of life, the human tendency to seek logic in an illogical world, the hamster treading its wheel.
It is perhaps best summed up in the ethereal closing story Drowning, about a woman who swims across a channel and finds herself discombobulated on the far bank. It is a story that summons the ghosts of early 20th century modernism – Eliot, Woolf, Kate Chopin – as Walsh makes clear the “under-the-water” feeling to life and her character’s valiant efforts to stay afloat: “Despite everything, we are good people, who can hardly live in this world that continues almost entirely at our expense. The best thing is to keep on moving arms and legs, and watch the waves, almost as though moving forward.”