Last month I responded to the Try a Story TAG on Youtube to read the first story of five different collections and “Vertigo” was one of them. Whether “Vertigo” is a book of stories or a novel is something which could be debated. Many of the sections/chapters/stories follow a woman at various stages in her life: travelling without her husband, dealing with her mother's death, attending an engagement as an esteemed professional. It might be the same character or different women. Few personal details or names are given, yet Joanna Walsh gets at the heart of her protagonist's life so that you feel immediately involved in her story. She does this through an innovative and compelling style which shifts your perspective to let you see the fully rounded truth of emotional experience. These finely-crafted vignettes give a refreshing and sometimes startling perspective on our ever-shifting identities.
There is a fascinating attention to physical detail and space throughout this book. Quite often there will be descriptions about the exact placement between the narrator and other people in a cafe she might happen to be in, the dynamics of the room and the environment outside. It's as if the protagonist is desperately trying to establish a presence wherever she's located in order to affirm and better understand her place within and relationship to the world. This is similar to when we're trying to comfort someone when they are upset by saying “There there.” This is a way of conveying “You are there” or “You are not lost.” These spatial descriptions often occur in instances when there is reason for the character to be highly distressed such as knowing that her husband might be having an affair or waiting for news about a sick child's prognosis.
Walsh's use of space extends from the physical world to the interior. She writes about the sky and water as a reflective surface. A woman window shops in Paris and it's noted of the clothing on display: “come December the first wisps of lace and chiffon will appear and with them bottomless skies reflected blue in mirror swimming pools.” It makes me think about how we try to reflect each other in style and dress, how we try to present ourselves as one thing until we begin to believe that the presentation is the reality and how people only see the exterior but sometimes see hints of untold depth. Later in ‘Summer Story’ it's observed that “there were puddles that looked deep and reflected the sunwashed sky.” These images create a strong sense of the physical world as well as building a meaningful feeling for how social personality is constructed.
In ‘Claustrophobia' there is a sense in which family is both a comfort and a thing of dread. Walsh has an interesting way of approaching the concept of home where she states “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French: both what’s behind the curtain and in front of it, a cherry cake studded with the same surprise on repeat. It confirms itself; it must confirm itself.” It's challenging to think of home as not the main event but a repeated series of actions and reactions to create consistency. Eventually we begin to believe that the comforts of domestic bliss are not a construct but real or an inevitability. When this is not confirmed, when members of that home go off script (as they do in some stories where there is family illness or a wife discovers her husband has been meeting women online) then these well ordered, repeated narratives of daily life become severely disrupted. The title story ‘Vertigo’ speaks powerfully about the fear of settling into domestic happiness. Yet the final story 'Drowning' seems to suggest that its only through a flirtation with the infinite alternative possibilities of life that we can find real comfort in making a home.
It's interesting that I happen to be rereading Jean Rhys' books at the moment because the tone of many of these stories is somewhat similar to her novels. Walsh frequently gives a wry look at the hard facts of life whether its a narrator noticing the ironically cheery images on the outfit of a medical profession or a beleaguered woman in Paris looking for affirmation in the admittedly superficial pleasure of clothes shopping. In particular ‘Summer Story’ shows a woman who knowingly debases herself in a search for affection and passion: “With all the time I have, I could learn a language, I could read a book, I could write a book. In the end I walk nowhere and the wind gets up wand the rain starts and it is still too early to go to his party.” There is a keen sense of aimless wandering which the narrator knows can't build to anything meaningful and putting faith in possibilities which she knows will bear no fruit.
Perspective shifts from story to story so that we see the central woman or women from different angles. This shift changes the feeling between each section so it's sometimes painfully intimate or at other times more objectively detached. One of the most comic stories ‘Young Mothers’ takes a satirical edge on motherhood in a way similar to Helen Ellis' hilarious book “American Housewife” from earlier this year: “we looked after our young selves, awarding ourselves little treats – cakes, glasses of juice or wine – never too much.” It's narrated in the collective which is a perfectly suited format to convey how these new mothers unite to infantilize themselves as a way of halting the process of ceding youth to the next generation they've created.
“Vertigo” frequently makes you linger on certain lines to consider the possible interpretations and the full impact what's being said. It's artful how this doesn't disrupt the flow of each section or story but allows you to engage with the emotional dilemmas more fully. This is a strikingly original, thoughtful and creatively executed book.