When you begin Joanna Walsh’s non-linear, digital-only story, Seed, your initial engagement is not with the text but with the form in which that text is presented. Designed to be experienced on a tablet or smartphone, it encourages you to tap the exquisite botanical illustrations (provided by Walsh’s collaborator, Charlotte Hicks), swipe without reading to see what lies on the next screen, attempt to learn the subtle animation language presented to you, and little by little understand the various ways the narrative can be read.
These enchanting features are not simple gewgaws, though. Once you have worked out that you can follow individual ‘vines’ from one moment to another, that these vines cross each other, take similar routes, then lead you off in another direction where you gain new information or a different view; once you have realised that there is a beginning and an end to the story, but that you don’t need to read it chronologically; once you have tired (just a little) of the novelty ‘play’ aspect of the work and begin to read the text itself, you realise that there is, in fact, no clear division between the content of the story that is being told and your neophytic experimentation.
For this is a tale of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. The world for her is both confusing and enchanting, just as the form in which Seed is presented confuses and enchants the reader. Clearly aged around eighteen (she is about to go to university), at times the narrator’s observations seem those of someone much younger: ‘Some things tickle but make sure they’re not nettles’, she says. ‘Things that are not nettles can still feel sharp.’ Her next observation, though, is that of an adult: ‘To walk through the fields is more authentic. Because it is not concrete.’ Similarly, the reader cannot help but feel a childish delight at the charming details of Seed’s form, nor avoid bringing to their reading their own adult sensibilities.
This interplay between innocence and knowledge is intensified by the story’s physical setting – it takes place in a rural valley over a few summer months – and by the narrator’s forays outside this Eden-like space, towards the temptations of crime, men, and, specifically, sex.
When it comes to these forays, once again Seed’s form reflects its content. For as you follow the twinkling lights around the flowers, and the twisting and extending vines, you realise that the narrative is circling around something, without ever striking a path directly towards it. It is glanced at, alluded to, glimpsed through the branches, but neither the narrator nor the story she’s part of dare to intone its name. That, perhaps, is the reader’s responsibility.
By West Camel
Seed by Joanna Walsh
Editions at Play, 2017