The stories in Joanna Walsh’s new collection Vertigo often give the impression of being borrowed from her own life. This is not only because of the ordinary moments they describe, but because Walsh avoids the troublesome details which would create the impression of multiplicity. Anonymity is the order of the day: each story is voiced by a nameless narrator who refers to those she knows by relationship (daughter, husband) or pronoun, and has a tendency to generic groupings when describing strangers. This is not a criticism; quite the reverse – it is this ‘voice’ which carves into the everyday and elicits deeper truths with its observations.
Take, for example, this description of a visit to a tourist attraction from the title story, one of a number which takes place when the narrator is on holiday:
“At the ruin, the light-coloured people do different things from the dark-coloured people. The light-coloured people sit in the debris of the ruin. They look, from there, at other buildings in the ruin. I cannot tell whether they are happy or not…
“The dark-coloured people sit on plastic picnic chairs between the ruin and the hut. They do not enter the ruin; they do not look at the ruin. They work there.”
From the vague and disparaging “ruin” onwards, the narrative voice draws back from the narrator’s experience as a tourist to pinpoint the slightly unreal atmosphere of tourism, an in-between existence that is partly our life and partly another. It is this ‘step back’ approach, likened here to vertigo, which reoccurs throughout the book. The satiric intent and the sense of alienation is echoed using the same approach in ‘New Year’s Day’:
“Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in colour with hand-drawn lettering. Everyone didn’t see why they shouldn’t like – shoes! Everyone had taken pictures of themselves or had pictures of themselves taken in thrift-store clothing.”
This distancing from others is a common thread throughout the stories, but one that enhances rather than inhibits Walsh’s exploration of relationships. In ‘Vagues’ she waits with a man (not her husband, it is revealed) she is considering sleeping with; much of her impression of his character is displayed using a simple typographical trick:
‘They do not have enough staff.’
‘They have too many tables.’”
Even better are stories that focus on the narrator’s relationship with her children (‘Vertigo’, ‘The Children’s Ward’) and her parents (‘Claustrophobia’). In ‘The Children’s Ward’ she is waiting on news of her son; her helplessness is revealed as she imagines a scenario in which an intruder enters her home:
“When this person leaves my kitchen and arrives, armed with my fantasies, at the very door of my room, which of my children would I save first: the venerable youngest or the one able to run?”
In ‘Claustrophobia’ the narrator remembers her relationship with her mother using a structure which counts down towards her death (Minus 5 Years, Minus 4 Years) though not in order. Her father’s death comes first, the comic imagery of his coffin suggesting family gatherings over the years:
“But here’s my father wheeled in on some kind of catering trolley! He is in a box surrounded by something piped, perhaps cream, or duchesse potatoes, though it could be carnations.”
It seems appropriate that the narrator’s relationship with her mother is later described using a cake:
“There’s no bottom to it. I’m digging through the kind of soil that supports rhododendrons: it’s that dark.”
There’s a beautiful balance in Walsh’s writing: it’s not showy but has a quiet style; it often raises a smile but one accompanied by melancholy eyes; it’s built from the quotidian material of unremarkable life, but insists we pause and look a little closer. I was tempted to quote the wonderful final paragraph from the final story, ‘Drowning’, but instead I would suggest you read it as intended, as the last words in this eloquent volume.