Seed, by Joanna Walsh, No Alibis Press, 200 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1838108106
Joanna Walsh’s practice extends across digital media, live performance and print, and before its most recent iteration as the novel reviewed here, Seed had incarnations as an interactive web narrative (a collaboration between Visual Editions and Google) and as a polyphonic stage performance by amateur “community” readers across Ireland, the UK and elsewhere. I was one of the volunteer readers when the piece was performed at Phonica in Smock Alley in 2018. The effect of four small groups of women on stage, giving a syncopated reading of four strands of text, was a powerful rendering of overlapping interior voices, and also effective in suggesting how common experiences may be lived through in isolation.
For almost a decade, Walsh has campaigned for the equal treatment of women writers; she founded @read_women (2014-2018) and continues to challenge both age discrimination in awards and calls for work, and the prejudicial gendered marketing approaches adopted for women’s books. Quantitative data assembled by organisations such as MEAS (Measuring Equality in the Arts Sector) have highlighted the deep imbalance evident in the publishing landscape, and it is widely acknowledged that many of the women now hitting their stride as writers in their forties and fifties have struggled with the absence from the canon of literary forebears.
While Walsh campaigns for women who have not had a straightforward writing career trajectory, in Seed she touches on the root cause, exploring how the lack of positive female role models dictates the expectations of the protagonist, an eighteen-year-old living “between the valley and the estate” in a rural part of the UK in 1988, who sees no example of a “serious woman” around her beyond someone who works in a real estate office, and is also conscious that “there are no stories about people like us”.
Using her trademark flat descriptive prose and declarative sentences, and interweaving the protagonist’s various strands of thought – divided broadly into landscape, the body, external information and plot – Walsh incisively lays bare the ambivalence swirling through her psyche: “I am a feminist. I am not like other girls. My body is a girl but I am not. My body does not look how a girl should look. This is why I am reading a book by a man.”
The non-linear format of the digital and performance pieces translates seamlessly to the printed book, operating like memory itself, looping between themes and reflections, and all the while questioning its own veracity. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” says Ophelia in Hamlet, and it is no accident that Rosemary is the name given to a girl with whom the narrator is fixated during the confusing summer during which the book is set, poised between adolescence and adulthood, the closed provincial world of the backwater where she lives and life outside. It is only at the end of the novel that she claims the words as Ophelia’s own. The rank vegetation of Hamlet is threaded through Seed, with the emphasis on the growth that is only made possible by decay, like the red seeds shed by the dock as the plant breaks down.
The novel is set at a time when the detrimental impact of humanity on the world’s ecology was beginning to bite, with pervasive use of agricultural chemicals, the explosive expansion of industrialised farming, and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Contemporary anxieties are signalled by the epigraphs (No future – Sex Pistols, and Cold Pastoral! – John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’), and the seeming improbability of a human/nature rupture forms an important strand of the narrator’s thought-process: “This is nature. I don’t know nature. It means nothing besides what I live every day.”
This pitch-perfect depiction of life as a teenage girl in the 1980s starkly highlights the internalised misogyny of a generation, the cultural homogeneity of small-town life, and the insidious creep of environmental spoliation. It also demonstrates the revolutionary potential of language: “We do not use those words about ourselves but we do not use other words either so we cannot change them.”
Seed has a lot to say – about gender, about humanity’s adverse impact on the natural world, about social structures – but it never reads like polemic. Walsh’s attentive, controlled, pared-back prose has all the tension and discipline of poetry. She is an enthusiast of Oulipo, and the publisher’s blurb signals that the novel is “tied with a hidden linguistic constraint”, though the nature of the constraint is not revealed. This is wise – awareness of the constraint would limit the reader’s focus, and the fact that it isn’t apparent demonstrates just how well the writing is working. More than an exercise in style, Seed reflects my own teens back to me in a way that I have never seen in print before. For this as much as for its beautifully controlled language, acute social observation and subversive humour, it has restored my flagging faith in the potential of the novel to make the ordinary extraordinary.
(Seed is also available as a limited-edition hardback. The paperback trade edition has a mustard-coloured jacket illustrated with organic forms by Walsh herself and features French flaps and French blue endpapers. No Alibis Press is to be congratulated on such a beautiful production.)
Amanda Bell’s most recent poetry collection, Riptide, is published by Doire Press.