Wednesday 17 January 2018

Books: Awkward beauty of disorientating tales

Short­stories: Vertigo, Joanna Walsh, Tramp Press, pbk, 114 pages, €10

Unique voice: Joanna Walsh captures awkward snippets of what it is to be a woman.
Unique voice: Joanna Walsh captures awkward snippets of what it is to be a woman.

Ruth Gilligan

These words set the tone for the entire collection, where French escapades and broken relationships abound, all told by someone who never seems certain about the telling in the slightest. Because the stories are awkward, manically disorientating yet utterly familiar, the narrator fretting over everything from the meaning of life to seating arrangements to the price of restaurant soup. Yet such is the startling beauty of this book, as bizarre as it is profound, confirming Walsh as a teller worth listening to very carefully indeed.

Walsh's two previous collections, Grow a Pair: 9ƒ Fairy Tales About Sex and Fractals, were recently followed by her part-memoir part-meditation on modern life, Hotel. She edits the experimental literary magazine 3:AM and this year sits on the judging panel for the Goldsmiths Prize for 'boldly original fiction', which was won in 2015 by Kevin Barry's eccentric masterpiece Beatlebone.

Vertigo could certainly be termed 'boldly original', with fresh thoughts and ideas spiralling across every page. In the titular tale, the narrator explains that "Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not towards the earth but into space. I sense no anchorage", and indeed, there is a dizzying, elusive quality to the work. But a sense of anchorage is also provided by the consistently engaging voice; a voice which combines emotional frankness with beautifully delicate descriptions: "The tarmac is a warm body beneath my feet." Meanwhile, the same themes echo across the tales - growing old; being abroad; mother-daughter relations. "Mother," Walsh shrewdly writes, "is where we put things we don't like." This line comes from the story 'Claustrophobia', in which the narrator finds herself cohabiting with her aging parent, though there remains a marked disconnect between the women. "My mother doesn't notice, lives inside, double-glazed".

All of Walsh's characters feel separated in some way, behind windows, behind doors, viewed through computer screens. "You cannot communicate with your children, your ex-husband. To be connected you must stand very near a wall of glass." This emotional detachment also translates into the prose itself, as the voice lapses back and forth between the first and third person, in and out of italics - "The third person. There was no sign of this happiness on the outside, she knew" - thus heightening the overall sense of disorientation or disconnect.

This disconnect is sometimes deliberately employed by the characters as a coping mechanism. In 'The Children's Ward', the narrator sits by a hospital bed, waiting for news of her child's fate, so tries to distract herself with a variety of bizarre scenarios. Yet, despite this attempt at self-preservation, the anxiety of the moment builds and builds, right up until the news is about to arrive. And then Walsh leaves us - as she so often does - right on the brink, teetering with our very own sense of vertigo.

Walsh has been compared to a wide range of authors. As I read, I thought of Miranda July, and also of Claire Louise Bennett, whose recent collection Pond was just as compelling and perplexing. But Walsh's voice is entirely her own, uniquely capturing awkward snippets of what it means to be a woman, to be a mother, to be a human. Yet again, the team at Tramp Press has brought a rare talent into our lives.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

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