Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

"Vertigo" by Joanna Walsh (, 2015)

14 short pieces - flash really


The language sounds awkward sometimes, using repetition in a nouveau roman way, or to show that the narrator's struggling with words. Sometimes it sounds as if syntax is being twisted to make the language more poetic. At times though I think it's merely clumsy. Here are some examples that exhibit varying degrees of success -

  • the beach has rubbish, though not much, and though the restaurant, by its presence, makes the rubbish unmentionable. All the beaches along this coast have some rubbish: either more or less than this beach (p.12)
  • I grasp at words in this language with other languages I know, languages other than the one I mostly speak, as though one foreignness could solve another (p.22)
  • People forget how far things are. When we returned in the evening the owner of the guesthouse was disappointed that we did not walk to the limit of the ruin. At first we feel disappointing, but then we notice how old she is. She is tough, but she cannot have walked to the limit of the ruin, or not for a long time (p.24)
  • The ground here has an air about it, a purpose: it focuses on the fallen. It's to do with vision, seeing straight. My eyes turned away from my mind's purpose - or toward it, which may also have been away from it. My mind does not tell me everything it thinks (p.25)
  • Some women take power in a country by souveniring. I try to imitate them, look only for what I can buy, but my heart's not in it. The bargain is the thing to treasure: the leap of possession, of which the keepsake is only an echo (p.28)
  • I am too old to look good in a bikini and I have not, across the years, paid enough attention to looking good in a bikini for me to look good in a bikini. But, even when young, I never paid enough attention to looking good in a bikini (p.105)

Usually it's clear what's reality and what's linguistic decoration, except for "Claustrophobia" which becomes rather surreal - a wake, a party, cakes, trolleys.

Because the reader's unsure what is narrative, description or internal monologue, passages can easy take on extra meanings, especially if the passage is a short, complete paragraph - e.g. "You cannot communicate with your children, your ex-husband. To be connected you must stand very near a wall of glass" (p.82)

All the sentences in "And After ..." begin with "Let" - "Let the branches of chain stores in the high street be too small to carry the full range. Let their sales be undermined by charity shops selling just as good as new. Let there be other shops stocking nothing useful: handicrafts, overpriced children's clothes" (p.77)


The narrators are women (perhaps one woman). Other women are there to be compared with. Men are unreliable husbands, ex-husbands or potential bedmates. I can imagine people liking the tone even if they're not keen on tricksy language, happy to turn a blind eye in order to read about a (usually) recently divorced woman watching her daughter becoming sexualized and her mother becoming a widow. She's navigating through roles, loss of confidence leading to loss of cohesion - mind splits from body, language splits from mind. Some characters feel separate from the body they're trapped in. "I realize that my body is enjoying looking out of the window" (p.41).

Her family isn't a successful model -

  • "My mother tidies the food away into her son's wife and their children, her long years' job of loading things into people" (p.59)
  • "We meet from time to time to notice how each has aged: that's family" (p.66)

The narrator's role can take over her personality. In "Young mothers" the narrator is so depersonalised that she uses the 3rd person plural to describe her group-state - "If we noticed ourselves crying in the corner, we went to comfort ourselves" (p.37). Another conceit is that because the babies made the women into mothers, the babies "gave birth" to the mothers - "We were younger than our children: the children that had birthed us" (p.38).

The narrator's state of mind is sometimes represented by language ploys - repetition, disruption, point-of-view changes, etc.

Some of the stories

In "The children's ward" (perhaps my favourite piece) I think a mother's been left by her husband to sit beside the bed where her child will return after an op. She feels that parts of her body are behaving independently. With all the sadness around, the childish decorations on curtains, cups, etc seem out of place. To distract herself she fantasises about being home in bed at night with a prowler downstairs, interpreting what she hears. Her fantasy ends with her realizing that she needs the prowler, that she'd look for him, not run away. The piece ends with a female doctor appearing, the doctor who's going to say how it went.

"The big black snake" is a c.500 word anecdote. 4 people (young girls? a family?) approaching a little bridge see what they think is a big black snake underneath. They assume it's poisonous, but cross the bridge nonetheless. A woman tells them later that poisonous snakes aren't like that. Even in such a short piece she uses repetition to underline the meaning. "And we knew that this thing about the snake that we had known all together was wrong, even though we had known it all together, and it was one time that we had known something all together, all four of us at once, the same thing ... But it had been important that we agreed about the snake, and it had been important that we did not have to say this, but that we had known it at that moment, each and all of us, the same thing" (p.75). I think rather than the Getrude Stein repetition I'd have preferred this anecdote to have been embedded in a more conventional story.

Other reviews

  • Claire Kohda Hazelton (Vertigo sits somewhere between a collection of short stories and a novel. ... Introspective, detached and curiously inexpressive, [Walsh’s protagonist] seems to hover over any occurring action as though observing rather than taking part.)
  • Kate Jones (The style of the stories is that of short vignettes, mostly written in a modernist, stream of consciousness style. ... My favourite story in the collection has to be Young Mothers)
  • Laura Kenwright (Occasionally, the tendency to explore the abstract over action felt a little frustrating and left me craving specificity ... Half the World Over sees a masterful depiction of how a character assimilates (or attempts to) into a place in which they are foreign ... A trope favoured by Walsh is a tendency to repeat words and phrases multiple times over short spaces on the page. ... For me the standout story of the collection is The Children’s Ward. The opening line is memorable, and sets the exemplary tone of the rest of the story: ‘I have had some good times in this body, like right now, looking out of the window.’ This story brings together a strong narrative with a stream-of-consciousness, enabling us to see Walsh’s writing at its most effective; moving, unsettling and strange.)
  • Heidi Julavits (The stories in “Vertigo,” by contrast, fixate directly on bad marriages and cheating husbands and the sexual threat of other women. Walsh’s fictional narrators are, like her nonfictional one, armored and affected, but her stories reveal a psychological landscape lightly spooked by loneliness, jealousy and alienation. Walsh likes negative space and wordplay and repetition ... there’s a prevailing and often infuriating caginess to many of the stories. They do not cut downward or inward; instead they move laterally until the energy simply dissipates.)

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