Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

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Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Kate Jones
Reviewed by Kate Jones
Summary: An interesting, thought-provoking, sometimes beautiful set of short stories which linger in the mind long after reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 120 Date: March 2016
Publisher: & Other Stories
ISBN: 978-1908276803

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The short stories in Joanna Walsh's collection have the overall effect of disparate streams of consciousness of a woman laying bear her very soul, whilst often going about seemingly mundane activities of the ordinary and every day. The narrative voice appeared to me to be the same woman speaking throughout, playing different roles, though I'm not sure this was meant to be the case. The style of the stories is that of short vignettes, mostly written in a modernist, stream of consciousness style. Sometimes, the prose appears almost poetic.

We are taken through the whole gamut of women's modern lives: that of mother, daughter, lover and wife, in a way I haven't read before.

In the title story Vertigo, Walsh plays with narrative nuances, switching between 'you' – as though speaking to the man in the story – and 'he'. It then also moves to italics, giving a third person commentary She felt no vertigo. Despite this, it seems to work in a new and interesting way. This story brings up the concept of women today often feeling they have, as Walsh's narrator says, no anchorage. She questions the role of woman as wife and mother in this story, as with many of the stories, and there is a general sadness and inevitability to life when she says she has merely learned only how not to want.

There also seems to be a meditation on ageing in some of the stories, such as in Fin de Collection, when the narrator says To other people, perhaps, I still look fresh. Mother/daughter relationships also come under scrutiny. Claustrophobia, among others, explores the relationship between a mother and a grown up daughter, and the way we easily fall back into old habits in family relationships.

The collection is perfectly readable in one session, as many of the stories are very short, which is something I like in general. Although they are short, there is certainly a lot of content packed into most of them. There were times, however, with a couple of the stories that I felt more could be said – they seemed deliberately cut short. I also found the collection achingly sad. Perhaps it is meant to be, and it certainly resonates in stories such as The Children's Ward, where the mother is awaiting the outcome of her child's operation. When the staff refer to her simply as 'Mum', she says I looked around for her but she wasn't there. I think Walsh is drawing attention to the invisibility of women – the annihilation of self that often comes with motherhood. That isn't to say there aren't elements of humour, however, in such stories as Half the World Over for example, the narrator tells us There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it, making it impossible for you not to warm to the character.

My favourite story in the collection has to be Young Mothers, in which Walsh, amusingly, makes the connection with the way new mothers morph into the children they are raising. She contrasts the clothing worn by pregnant women and mothers to their offspring, as being bright and easily washable, eradicating the woman's former tastes. She also cleverly makes connections between a child's first day at playgroup with the mothers, trying to make friends with other mothers for the first time. I thought this was an original take on new motherhood.

The final story of the collection, Drowning, feels like the story the whole collection has been working towards, when a woman who is a mother and wife swims out alone, away from her family, and reflects on her role once the holiday they are on is over. The story reminded me of the novella The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

As I said before, there is an over-arching sadness resonating throughout these stories, peppered with some lucid moments of prose. As I read, I felt an unnerving sense that the woman narrator was going to fall through the cracks and disappear altogether. And I think this was probably Walsh's intention. There is a feeling of hopelessness, of passivity on the part of the narrator, and therefore, the role of women in society. Though I read through the stories quickly and in sequence, I think it will be a book I return to again, and have a feeling Walsh's prose will resonate in new and different ways on each reading.

If you liked this, you might also like: There but for the by Ali Smith

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