A delicate exposition of the everyday: Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

“New Year’s Day on the sofa. I folded my life in on itself, seven times. The last few folds only bent. I was surprised it was so bulky.”

The cover of the book is simple. Pale yellow lettering across the horizon that separates a gray sky from the gray waters below. Vertigo. Joanna Walsh. Inside fourteen stories, elemental evocations of a woman’s existence, from the gently dissected vantage point of early mid-life, rolling out, reflecting back on one another, like waves lapping up against the shore. Emerging from the waters as the book draws to close, it is difficult to find words to encapsulate the experience of encountering this work.

vertigoThroughout this spare collection, Walsh demonstrates a stunning ability to pinpoint the imperceptible, bring it to the surface and spin a story around it. Her narrators, who may or may not all be the same woman, perseverate, observe, double check and doubt themselves. They are acutely aware of their bodies: bodies that are aging. They are aware of their clothes, of how their clothes fit, how they arrange their legs, if the man at the next table has noticed their legs. They turn their focus inward to the very act of breathing – in, out, or barely breathing at all. They are mothers, they are wives, they are ex-wives, they are daughters. Perspectives shift, sometimes even within the frame of the same story.

“I say ‘you’. Of course I mean ‘me’.”

The title story, “Vertigo”, is the account of a family vacation. The narrator, her husband and children have travelled to an unnamed country to spend as little money as possible, time is the currency of the holiday. Vertigo, she tells us, is “the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” The drive up the mountain to their guesthouse with a drop off to one side of the road is the worst. During the day the family visits a tourist site, ruins where the temptation arises to remove a stone or even a piece of the rubble from the original structure. This stirs anxieties the woman recognizes as echoes of her mother rising through her and creating conflict with her own role now as mother to her children. Meditative, her thoughts roam with the sun drenched unanchored processing that we often fall into when removed from the routine of ordinary life. It feels as if Walsh has simply opened her hands to capture her character’s reflections and spilled them gently across the page. It is almost impossible to pinpoint how it works, but it does.

The minute attention to the inner moment, pared down to its most essential, is the quality that sets these stories apart. The conscious detachment of the self from the body of the mother waiting in the hospital while her son undergoes surgery in “The Children’s Ward” is especially poignant and will ring true for any parent who has placed their emotions on hold, not daring to think too much about possibilities, waiting, just waiting, distracting oneself with mind games when the brain will often not even distract itself with a book or magazine. Waiting for Charlotte (whoever Charlotte is, she does not know) to update her, the mother wonders:

“If Charlotte comes with her words comes to tell me it all went wrong how would my body know it? How long before the parts of my body realized, independently, that something was wrong and arrived, severally, at panic? Panic is still a thing. I have felt it before: each limb nerve organ coming into extreme alert unrelated to any other, ready for action, but who knows what action, as there is no action that could help here.”

Many pieces are very short, prose pieces rather than stories perhaps, each finely honed. The voices are wryly observant, tuned in to an inner monologue that mediates between the self and the self in the world. One becomes ensnared in the mesh of words, even in the simplest of stories. In “Relativity” a woman is traveling by bus to see her mother. She compares herself to her teenage daughter beside her and to the other women on the bus:

“Among other middle-aged women I don’t look too neat, and this pleases me.

I am dressed for, what? For anything that might happen to me: keep it coming! I’ve learned that it does. I am dressed for things that are not. I am not too sexy, not too casual, not too unassumingly unassuming. I do not look like I have made an effort, but I do look like I might have made an effort to look like I have not made an effort, which is only polite. And I will not fall over if required to run in my shoes.”

I don’t want to say too much about the individual stories here. They are best encountered on their own terms. This is a book that invites a slow reading. It is not long, or difficult. But you want to savour each piece. This is fiction infused with fine imagery, charged with an electric current, shockingly alive to new possibilities of rendering the mundane exquisite. If you are not watchful it could leave you with a sense of vertigo.

Or maybe that is the goal.

Vertigo is published by the Dorothy Project in North America. The UK edition will be released by And Other Stories in 2016.

13 thoughts on “A delicate exposition of the everyday: Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

  1. This novel sounds fascinating to me. It seems to hit on target the way that women, or at least myself, tend to look too long (or with too much emotion) at things both inward and outward. (“…perseverate, observe, double check and doubt themselves.) I am intrigued.

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    • Walsh has a way of carrying the reader right into the inner thoughts of her characters so that it does not matter if you have personally shared the experience (or the gender), but I imagine it is especially powerful when you do, as I found with the story in the children’s hospital… suddenly I was back in that state of suspended anxiety I experienced when my son had several surgeries at an early age.

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  2. Great review. I’m glad you mentioned the way clothes are used – I didn’t have space for that. In fact, I felt there was much more I could have said (I also loved the quote you open with!)

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    • Thanks. I found that it was best to take just a few stories to look at, but there are so many wonderful passages and images. One of the reviews quoted on the back describes the book “like a series of photographs, like cinema”. That is a perfect description. Like you I wanted to write more about the final story but I think it is best left for a reader to encounter on their own.

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  3. Lovely review. Grant reviewed this too recently of course, and also made an excellent case for it. Oddly enough I’m hearing Joanna Walsh speak next Tuesday and I have an unread collection of hers at home. This bumps that very much up the TBR pile.

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    • How lucky! She is an author I would love hear, or even better, have a chance to talk to. I am very interested in literature that explodes the form but retains elegance and tells a story. In a recent interview with her in numéro cinq she mentions that reading in translation and from small indie presses has informed her reading as a writer more than her English lit degreee. I found that interesting, books like this raise the bar for the experience I hope for from a book.

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  4. […] Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh * Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work. […]

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