And, if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.
A last line suggestive of a mother’s happy reconciliation with her family after a near-drowning undermines our wilful happily-ever-after with its “if”. Undecided, the story throws the woman back into the sea, keeps her there, “moving arms and legs”, near-drowning, near-happily-ever-after. Not sure. How quickly summer holiday stories turn sinister, or how sea under sun dazzles, makes us giddy. But that’s not what I read here, in this lush story where “The tarmac is a warm body beneath my feet”. What I read is the domestic tyranny, the maternal drudgery that even a holiday, a French village, a strip of sea can’t shake. A woman steps into the sea so as to no longer see whether her partner is choosing to pay attention to their children or choosing to read a book. She swims the channel so as to no longer be able to see, to no longer have to know. It’s a brief act of maternal finitude and one that sheds an acerbic light on parenthood. “Shall I tell you what it is like to drown? It is very calm and quiet.” As in, it is calmer and quieter to drown than to mother?
In Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016. Chosen by Olivia Heal
I am the biggest fan of my own work: if I didn’t take the utmost joy in my own writing, why would I continue? To compromise on any perceived narcissism, I’ve chosen a story you can’t read. Shklovsky’s Zoo was published by Tony White’s Piece of Paper Press. A story about the ways literature disappears on and offline, and particularly about the erasure of women’s words, the 2015 print run of 150 copies were given away for free and the story can no longer be read or reproduced anywhere.
Piece of Paper Press, 2015
The One That May Represent Some Sort of Platonic Ideal:
Officially, this is an extract too, but the first time I read it was as a standalone piece, so I’m going with that.
I used to think Hemingway’s ‘Canary for One’ was my favourite short story: the way it describes a train journey – initially along the French Mediterranean coast – via the landscapes flashing by outside the window, the way it talks about relationship ending without really talking about the relationship at all…
Then I read this, which starts by travelling the same geographical territory, but heading East rather than West, and also talks about/ doesn’t talk about a relationship ending, and is more perfect, more right, word for word, than anything has a right to be.
I won’t go on about how great Joanna Walsh is because you already know – you, of all people – and also because I’m not qualified to do so, and I detest theorising talk, but if I had to come up with some sort of example of how I wish I could write then it would look a lot like this.
(Available to read on Granta.com. Officially part of Break.up, Serpent’s Tail, 2018)
John Berger has written that ‘Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted . . . in a railway station the impersonal and the intimate coexist. Destinies are played out.’ (I think Walter Benjamin has something to say about stations, too, but I can’t find the reference now – why did Benjamin have to write so bloody much? – and anyhow I’m sure you probably know it better than I do.) Here, Walsh plays with the entirely reasonable idea of taking up residence in a railway station.
In Worlds From The Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
I came across Joanna Walsh’s stories for the first time only a few months ago. They’re experimental, not ‘easy’ and on a first reading I found many of them sterile, lacking the emotion which I crave in a story. But what I discovered was that they went on to snag at my mind in a disquieting ways until undercurrents of emotion rose to the surface. In ‘Two’, the narrator has “two polished and uncomplaining companions”. One holds the other by the hand. Though clearly inanimate, they play a very important part in the narrator’s life, though not in a straightforward or comfortable way. In this as in another story I might have chosen from this collection, Travelling Light, love co-exists with anxiety. So it is in life. For me reading (and writing) stories is a way of making sense of a world which, let’s face it, is nigh-on incomprehensible these days to many of us.
(In Worlds from the Word’s End, published by And Other Stories, 2017)