Worlds from the Word's End by Joanna Walsh

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Worlds from the Word's End by Joanna Walsh

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: When this collection of shorts is good it's intriguing – and good – but when it's not, it's too often so.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: September 2017
Publisher: And Other Stories
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781911508106

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We here at The Bookbag liked this author's fairly recent collection of short stories, Vertigo. I myself missed out, but that seemed to be vignettes from one character's narration – here we get homosexual male narrators and a host more, as well as much less of the sadness prevalent before. Having had a brief encounter with this author courtesy of her entry into the Object Lessons series, I was intrigued by her name being stamped on a selection of shorts. Was it the ideal calling card? Let's face it, the very short story itself can be a postcard – let's say, from a specific hotel or two, as we see here. Perhaps I should have geared myself up, however, for such intricate writing on said postcards – and for the exotic locations from which they came…

The title story is a clever amalgamation of several hundred clichéd phrases, all concerning a world where people have dropped the use of language – first stopping to speak complex sentences, then giving up on shop signs and adverts, and in the end finding a new way to communicate through body language and facial expressions alone. It's also noted for being the third occasion in four pieces where something(s) have been defined as asexual, in a he/she/it/? kind of way. The other two I mention are a good, quick piece concerning our mirror self that has read all those books we bought but never read, or abandoned and dumped on the shelf; and the opening story, where a woman – I assume – is trying to pass on two things we are left to define. Equally undeclared is the nature of the luggage in 'Travelling Light', a fine whimsy where some huge cargo is reported on, diminishing as it does at every opportunity in its oddball journey across Europe.

Elsewhere we get a look at household tasks that build up on us until we hardly know what we ever meant to do ('Femme Maison'); more instances of the bundled clichés; and some inherent weirdness. A character from folk tale and pantomime goes to a knocking shop; someone is employed in cataloguing the minutiae of the world, in a most Forth Bridge-styled occupation; and a story begins I was still quite a little girl when I decided to kidnap Enzo Ponza.

But this book doesn't really allow me to go much further – in selecting key bits of key stories, I'm ignoring quite a few here I just found too odd, or too inconsequential to really mention. This is a quite haphazard book – at times the content is there, perhaps, but hidden by the style; other instances are of a very readable nothingness. It's nigh-on impossible to find a collection where you have to rave over every entry, and so I'm expecting to find a few pieces that I think of as duds, but on this instance the ratio was too even for my taste. Also, you really have to take it as read that when we declare a book to be 'literary fiction' and not 'general fiction' at the same time, it really can contain things that are hard to swallow – shamelessly literary indeed, as the very publishers label themselves.

Still, this is the nature of the modern short story in English writ large. Our author gets awards and grants and has been suitably lauded for some of her output. I can't declare there to be a common theme here – this very much has the flavour of a collection of pieces from one time zone with no attempt at hitting on one topic, and that itself may be one more reason why I didn't gel with everything here. But you do get some of the positive 'di-' words – this can be very different, and is certainly diverse – it's just a little too difficult too often. Again, to the connoisseur of the short literary piece – the kind of reader perhaps who thinks Granta too populist – this will be a book of note. For me, only a few of these postcards would reach my album.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I was reminded a little here and there of Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips, with its weird way of world-building concerning bureaucracy, family and the female character.

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