shining the spotlight on short story collections
3:AM Press, 2013
“All your life you’ve been asked to choose: to be the woman who didn’t drink canned sodas, who didn’t watch American television programmes, who would never, even in fun, decorate her home with Anaglypta wallpaper. Some of these injunctions you have overturned, but there are always fresh ones. You choose not to choose any more.”
Fractals is not an easy read. These are stories to read over and over, to ponder on. The characters are detached and dissatisfied, searching for something, or someone, that will cause their lives to change. The tone of the stories are cold yet intimate, the characters isolated, and nobody is given names, apart from the characters in Summer Story and Reading Habits, who are given letters.
The strongest stories in the collection are Femme Maison and Hauptbahnhof. Femme Maison is a story of blame and excuses told in fragmented paragraphs in the second person. The tone is mocking. The protagonist wants a new dress to ‘look different’ for a man she has ‘never seen before.’ She makes constant excuses for why she cannot change. She can’t alter the dress because the sewing machine needle broke and the shop doesn’t stock them, she can’t wear it because her ‘urban environment’ doesn’t allow it. She was controlled by her husband, confined to certain rooms but now she is entering more rooms than before it is the house’s needs that control her, until she ‘knew he had to go.’ The tone is ominous. Did she kill her husband or throw him out? Is this lack of control and forgetfulness the beginning of a breakdown due to regret or fear of being caught? She cannot satisfy or maintain the house or garden. The weather controls the movement of the ‘small things’ but she cannot. She puts the dress in the washing machine even though it isn’t dirty. ‘The house senses an exchange. It is satisfied.’ She is still trying to satisfy others above herself, either through guilt, or habit, or both.
Hauptbahnhof also focuses on a lone woman. She lives in a Berlin train station, whilst she waits for somebody to arrive. She doesn’t want the readers’ pity. The protagonist explains, in a hopeful, practical tone, that living in the station allows her to try out ‘international cuisine,’ try on a different tester lipstick every day, view ‘new and perfect’ things in the shops. She prefers to stay in Departures for the romance and expectation that mirrors and validates her own. Departures also marks the beginning of a journey, and she is not ready to end hers just yet.
Exes explores the letter ‘x’ and its symbolism in different contexts, and how its use can be so telling. The letter has a greater meaning that can determine the journey of a relationship, a friendship, and invoke guilt and pain and sadness. The story is simple, very short, and very effective.
Blue is a very short short story, told in first person, in a detached tone about a woman staying in a holiday home with her friend. The woman makes superficial judgments about her surroundings, her friend’s legs and book, the blue decor, yet never explores her disdain. She pulls at her skin like she pulls apart her surroundings. She watches her friend ‘jump into the pool’ whilst she reads her book, passive.
The stories in Fractals are experimental, fragmented – perhaps sometimes too much so – I found Summer Story particularly difficult to read, but on the whole, Walsh’s collection is haunting, and one that I will read again and again.
About the author: Joanna Walsh is a writer and illustrator. Her work has been published by Granta, Tate, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, The White Review, The European Short Story Network, Narrative Magazine and others. Her story collection, Fractals, is published by 3:AM Press.
About the reviewer: Hannah Tuson has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University and a degree in English Literature from the University of Sheffield. Her short stories have appeared in Notes from the Underground, Cadaverine Magazine, and Spread The Word’s 2012 anthology Things That Have Happened. Her poetry has been published by Pomegranate and MAP. She is currently working on a novel.