Book Review | Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

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The title story in Joanna Walsh’s new collection, published by independent Dublin publishing house Tramp Press, begins with an unnamed woman describing a holiday with her unnamed family, predicated on “spending as little as possible”. Her nameless partner appears to be planning to steal an artefact, the true value of which is unclear. The prospect of arrest, or a fine, threatens the thrift of the holiday.

Though this potential event places considerable mental strain on the narrator, it is peripheral. We are instead invited into her mind. Though uncertain and often inactive, she dissects her apparently banal surroundings with great precision.

Exactly who is telling us these stories is a moot point. There is a possibility that Walsh is writing a piece of auto-fiction: speaking about Rob Doyle’s ‘This is the Ritual’, Walsh defines auto-fiction as “blends of fiction and autobiography that call narrative concepts into question”.

Interpreting ‘Vertigo’ as Walsh addressing us directly would be missing the point, but there are moments where the line between fiction and reality are blended. An account of an awkward extra-marital date reads like a factual account, but, in the same story, the description of the beach facing the restaurant invites more abstract interpretation.

A common style allows us to assume it is the same person narrating each piece, though even this is not confirmed. If ‘Vertigo’ is a collection of episodes in one woman’s life, they are jumbled and do not follow a clear narrative thread. The concept of variation is introduced in the first story where a Parisian shopping centre is described paradoxically as “always the same and always different” similar to pictures of the Eiffel Tower in different seasons. The idea of variation on a theme is perhaps useful, as there is a unifying sense of alienation, as though apparently normal scenes are being translated into an isolated, personal idiom.

The stories are expertly crafted. We are drawn into the scenes Walsh creates, empathising with the narrator, but we are ultimately left in a state of disorientation. The narrator describes states of dissociation; where weight exists but does not act in a definitive direction, or where her body desires to run away independent of her mind while in the waiting room of a children’s hospital. Though these are obscure physical and emotional experiences, they seem immediate due to the clarity with which they are described.

The underlying ambiguity in Walsh’s prose invites comparison to other writers specialising in linguistic and semantic obscurity, particularly Maurice Blanchot. Blanchot’s Thomas l’Obscur begins with Thomas observing other bathers as he goes for a swim, before the narrative degenerates into a cyclical maze of increasingly fragmented and disturbing imagery. Where Blanchot tests the limits of narrative with surreal imagery, Walsh probes the trauma of actual experience. In one story, the narrator describes how young mothers observe themselves at a remove, being reduced to a childlike state of fear and dependence.

In another, Walsh’s narrator also goes for a swim, though she reflects that “we have gotten this far and we are not mad”, before imploring the reader to walk calmly back towards their family “who might not like see the abyss (they) have just swum over.”

For all this linguistic precision, a lack of control is a recurring issue. Those around her are limited by power they seem to possess: approaching sexual awakening, the narrator’s daughter stands to inherit a power she cannot use. The narrator herself is ultimately subject to her own changeable emotions. Not even despair can be relied upon or held onto, as she begins to feel involuntarily happy on the plane home.

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About Author

Conor O'Donovan

Conor writes and interviews people about books and storytelling. He grew up in Cork where a piece on the view from his bathroom window made it into his school yearbook. He studied English at Trinity and now works as Literature Editor for Headstuff. Spin him a yarn at literature@headstuff.org