shining the spotlight on short story collections
And Other Stories published 7 September 2017
“As for the rest of us, words still visited sometimes: spork, ostrich, windjammer… We wondered where they had come from, what to do with them. Were they a curse or a blessing? We’d pick them up where they dropped, like ravens’ bread on soggy ground.”
About the author: Joanna Walsh is a British writer and journalist, author of Vertigo, Hotel, Grow a Pair and Fractals. Her writing has been published in Granta, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review and many more. She reviews for, amongst others, The New Statesman and The Guardian. She is the founder of @read_women.
In the beginning was the word. So what if words become degraded or compromised? This is the proposition in the title story of Joanna’s Walsh’s most recent collection, Worlds from the Word’s End. Consider, as she does, an alternative world in which newspapers have ‘reverted to virgin’, and the consequences of this:
If, at an international level, there was no news, at a local level there was no gossip, so most of us felt better. We ceased to judge people, having no common standards.
It’s very thought-provoking, and this is a quality of all the stories in the collection. They are mostly very short and some of them only fragments, but they continue to tumble in the mind after you have read them and call to be revisited.
Joanna Walsh’s use of the second person lends a suitably edgy quality to other stories in the collection which explore aspects of the word and its place in our lives. In Bookselves she posits an alter-ego that we may all have, the one who has actually read all the books on our shelves. But if we were to sit down and have a drink or several with our bookself, things may not be as we expect. In Femme Maison, things in a house are elusive. Words are cut but not pasted, and dust accumulates dangerously.
On a first reading some of these stories can appear sterile. They certainly lack overt emotion, but go on to snag at your mind in a disquieting way until undercurrents of emotion rise to the surface. Like the short stories of George Saunders the best of them cast new light on the strangenesses of the world. Their power is the unexplained, although this remains active and vital throughout the telling. In Two, the narrator has ‘two polished and uncomplaining companions’. One holds the other by the hand. Though clearly inanimate, they are a significant part of the narrator’s life, but not in a straightforward or comfortable way. In Travelling Light, the mysterious shipment is similarly a burden to its carrier. Yet in both stories love co-exists with anxiety.
The unexpected and perhaps altogether random nature of human relationships is explored beautifully in Enzo Ponza, in which a small child ‘kidnaps’ an unknown man and takes him home. For ever. This is no crime drama, quite the opposite. The many questions which this act of kidnap might have posed are never asked. It is a story of simple inclusion and acceptance.
In some of her stories Joanna Walsh has clearly enjoyed playing with words and their alternative meanings. Like a Fish Needs a… looks at cycles as bikes and also as a woman’s mentrual cycle, and at the concept of balance in both contexts. In the brief compass of Dunnet the author evokes a whole world of flight. In The Story of Our Nation ‘hedge fund’ and ‘mass observation’ have sparked off her imagination into quite different areas from those first suggested by those words. In this collection of data the narrator counts leaves and measures them, while:
Some measure the gaps between doors and doorsills, the colour spectrum of hair on cutting room floors. Somebody has to do it.
These are stories which elicit wry smiles, sometimes with a quizzically-raised eyebrow, for they do not give up their secrets easily, particularly when the author considers the subject of black holes in Me and the Fat Woman. The writing is condensed, pithy – snapshots in high definition monochrome rather than soft-focus pastel, with deftly descriptive phrasing. Take, for example, Blue, where the narrator has rented for the summer a house ‘furnished with the dirt-ring of its owners’ lives.’ Postcards from Two Hotels, reminiscent of the detached prose style of the French 1950s ‘nouveau roman’ writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, evokes a great deal in very few words.
Simple Hans is a delightful example of the subverted fairytale in which a young boy goes to seek his fortune and finds that in ‘real’ life things are not as he had imagined. This is a story taken from Joanna Walsh’s collection Grow a Pair (2015), while five of the stories (out of a total of 18) come from another previous collection of her work, Fractals (2013) (reviewed previously in TSR here.).
Joanna Walsh’s delight in exploring language, reading and writing shines throughout the collection. Exes looks at how we use that pesky little ‘x’ in our communications. Reading Habits is a lexicon of what it says. That these are vignettes rather than stories with a beginning, middle and end will annoy only the pedantic reader, who will probably not in any case find this collection to his or her taste. A mind open to different possibilities, on the other hand, will find these stories a most rewarding one.
Read Enzo Ponzo at Granta
About the reviewer: Cath Barton is an English writer and photographer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella for The Plankton Collector, which will be published in 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review