Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

★★★★☆ (4/5)

This a collection of short stories or rather narratives in form of an intense interior vertigo-rgb-1-300x460monologue or recollection of memories, encompassing themes of loneliness, motherhood, infidelity, alienation, ageing, marriage and separation. Without having acquired any information on the author, I have assumed the narrator to be the author herself owing to backdrop of the story, the involvement of similar characters (cheating husband, teenage daughter, an imposing mother), and the style of unabated delivery of monologues.

In “Fin de Collection”, the narrator reflects on inner insecurities, giving them a voice through observation of fashion around her. Self-doubt in terms of age and deportment makes the narrator question her choices of what she wears and where she travels. There is a hint of envy in her tone as realisation sets in, in regards with her status as a tourist in a foreign country.

“Even to be static in Saint-Germain requires money. The white stone hotels charge so much a night just to stay still”

“The first effect of abroad is strangeness. It makes me strange to myself. I experience a transfer, a transparency. I do not look like these women. I want to project these women’s looks onto mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me”

“I was always too young. And now I am too old.”

“To appear for the first time is magnificent”

In “Vagues”, we are shown the seaside as our narrator goes into detailed description of her immediate surroundings. Her capacity for acute observation links the external world to her inner turmoil as she is there with a prospective lover whilst her husband is shown to be involved in an affair in the future. Infidelity on her and her husband’s part pricks her conscience incessantly, and she uses external events as a yardstick with which to weigh her sentiments with.

“the winter months are more likely to contain the letter “r” during which it is said oysters are best eaten, since during their spawning season, which is typically the months not containing the letter “r,” they become fatty, watery, and soft, less flavorful than those harvested in the cooler, non-spawning months when the oysters are more desirable, lean and firm, with a bright seafood flavor,”

“The winter months are more likely to contain the letter “r” during which it is said oysters are best eaten”

“In another country my husband may be sleeping with another woman. He may have decided, having the option, being for once in the same city as her, finally to sleep with the woman with whom I know he has considered sleeping, although he has not slept with her up to now. It is lunchtime. Where my husband is, it is not lunchtime yet. If my husband sleeps with the woman he will do so in the evening. As he has not yet done so, as he has not yet even begun to travel to the city where she lives, to which he is obliged to travel for work whether he sleeps with her or no, and as I am here in the oyster restaurant at lunchtime in another country, there is nothing I can do to prevent this.”

“The sound of the waves is pitched and modulated precisely so as not to intrude, distract, but so as to remain constantly audible: perfection.”

In “Vertigo”, the narrator is on a holiday with her husband and children. She understands the generational gap surrounding her and her kids and assumes a more humble position of authority as their mother. She is recognizant of her growing daughter, the powers of sexuality that have not yet taken hold of the innocent child but eventually will. She is frightened but acquiesces to its reality. The element of motherhood in our narrator is full of doubt yet accepts the inevitable.

“My mind does not tell me everything it thinks.”

“But, sometimes I see no more than is in front of me. There are times I should just keep quiet. That’s what the younger generation teaches me. They take the words out of my mouth, which I tasted for such a short time after I snatched them from the generation before. I’d thought the words were mine. My children have reminded me I was wrong”

“My daughter tosses her hair. I see it from far away, as someone who does not know her will see it, a man. She is twelve years old. It is the same gesture she used at nine, at ten. One day it will become sexual. Is it yet? I don’t know. Why am I frightened by this progress? It will happen. It must happen. And it happens in only one direction. She will gain power, but it is not much. This is power with no balance. I can weigh nothing against it. She cannot stop becoming powerful. She is not powerful yet. When she becomes powerful, it is not a power she will know what to do with. There is not much that can be done with this power, not by its possessor”

“She realized she was happy and it was terrible to be happy with anything so ordinary. It was like looking down from a height on nothing in particular, only the feeling of being able to see it all at once, and the feeling of falling, which was not falling, and the irritation at being provoked to that feeling by nothing in particular”

“How long does a thought take to form? Years sometimes. But how long to think it? And once thought it’s impossible to go back”

“Young Mothers” compares motherhood to being born again as children propel their parents, especially their mothers, to assume roles of a child. Mothers are called by their children’s names such as Amanda’s mum and not by their first names. They are made to play with toys with their babies, eat healthy, wear clothes that won’t show stains, sing nursery rhymes and essentially baby themselves in order to take care of their infants. There is a loss of individuality experienced by mothers who must sacrifice their own self in order to merge with their child’s daily activities. Bringing up a child requires incredible surrender to the needs of the young ones, all at the cost of giving up one’s own aspirations and dreams.

“The Children’s Ward” recounts the narrators visit with her child to a cancer ward. It is distressing to read a mother’s account and the trail of thought her mind follows in order to wedge a gap between callous reality and its outcomes. Her observational skills once again portray brilliance of equating her surroundings to what she is going through. The absent husband and father to her children makes a brief appearance.

“Curtains decorated with pictures of teddy bears that sit at right angles to each other, never parallel to the horizontal. They remind us that the people in the ward are children, though these children do and say nothing childlike”

“One distress parallels the other. Or, no, how could it, or if it does, it is only for a moment, before each returns to the specifics of her own misery”

“Online” revisits the narrator’s knowledge of her husband cheating on her with several women. She assess her relationship with the husband to the relationship he has with others, but fails to stand out on every level. This sense of inferiority clutches at her heartstrings and there is a pervading sense of resorting to fate without any external struggle.

In “Claustrophobia”, we are introduced to narrator’s mother who seems to exercise some form of authority over her daughter and in a sense is a source of her daughter’s self-doubt. The narrator seems distant from all the family dynamics that play out around her.

“My mother doesn’t notice, lives inside, double-glazed, while outside everything is dying for our pleasure: the wheat, the birds, the lambs—and new birds, and wheat, and lambs will replace them soon for our delight. But not the trees, which live longer. Maybe we are their entertainment”

“We meet from time to time to notice how each other has aged: that’s family. I keep on rising up to you, but you preserve your distance: the years are like that”

“I have learned that even underneath I am replaceable. You could employ someone to be me and get just the same thing, maybe even better, if you had the money.”

“Perhaps later you will not be glad, though maybe setting the seal of gladness on your first glimpse of the sea will have been enough to make you glad later”

The “Big Black Snake” briefly describes an encounter with a snake which the narrator and what we presume to be her family misjudge collectively. She revels in this miscalculation of assuming that the snake was poisonous since all her family members shared the same opinion. So for a brief instant, all distances and hatreds are put aside as the family reconciles in an unspoken faux pas.

“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”

In “And After…” our narrator describes the world as she would want it to be instead of what it is.

In “Half the World Over”, our narrator has travelled to a conference and weighs in on committing infidelity, fashion donned by the young and old and including or excluding herself from her environment in general.

“You mention a friend who once traveled here. When you say friend, say acquaintance, say how do you say ex-nearly-lover? You describe him and what he does without calling him any of this, hoping to see his reflection jump into your listeners’ eyes”

“From this café I can see the beautiful people in the café across the street: sitting at that café, I could only be among them. As I sit at this café I develop a certain affection for the people here”

“Time, when it is limited, is more beautiful”

In “Summer Story” we meet our narrator’s lover who eventually distances himself from her without any warning. Again, she resigns to her fate and does not question as to why he leaves her. She doesn’t bother with getting him back either. This pervading theme of retiring to whatever destiny has in store for her is also evident in “New Year’s Day”, where the author’s reticence is pitted against her ability to absolve herself of any wrong doing.

“Oh, there were nice times that summer, but they were attached to the wrong people”

“Because you are practical, you will put me away into some part of your memory that is folded. You will put me into the past tense. You will not be concerned to resolve your thoughts about me. You will not want to know what I think of you.”

In “Relativity”, the author once again resorts to the likelihood of what should have been instead of what really is. The thematic use of appearances and dresses to compare her illusory self with her real self underscores her inferiority complex that gnaws at her constantly.

“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.”

“The bus takes us through the outsides of cities, through yellow new estates of family-shaped houses. The people there have jobs you could put in a children’s book. I’d always hoped to end up in one of these places where no one has ever been old.”

The last short story “Drowning” presents a conclusion to the entire book where the narrator considers suicide by drowning, her husband’s indifference to his family and her persistent attachment to him despite his callous treatment. She is utterly emasculated by her emotional dependency on him despite all their failings.

 “The menu of the hotel restaurant is exactly what it should be: not cheap enough to be disappointing, not expensive enough to be intimidating.”

 “While you read your book with the attention your lack of worry affords, information enters your brain making you more interested, or interesting, engaged or engaging, and intelligent, and so you become less like me, who, not lacking the worry about neglecting the children, does not become any of these”

 “How have I lived those times you left? In abeyance. I thought it would be freedom, without you: it is not.”

The stories are wreathed with powerful style, language and imagery. The reader can sense an immediacy in tone, the underlying sense of crippling insecurity, wavering between action and consequence. A quick and brilliant read recommended for those who want to delve into the beauty of stream of consciousness without having to do anything with the complexities of the genre.

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