Temper by Phoebe Walker: A year of loneliness

Cover image for Temper by Phoebe WalkerFreelancing can be a lonely pursuit, the attraction of completing your work swiftly, free of interruptions from colleagues passing the time of day, wearing thin. It’s something I learnt to find a way round when working from home was more of a rarity than it is post-covid. It’s that experience that attracted me to Phoebe Walker’s Temper which follows a young woman, a freelance copywriter recently moved to the Netherlands, as she navigates her way through a year in a country where she knows only her partner.

There’s a gap where my sense of place should be.

Our unnamed narrator had been eager to leave London, using her contacts in marketing to set up as a freelance with ease. Her partner works for a multinational, a job which comes with a readymade social life. Our narrator takes herself off to these get togethers, awkwardly attaching herself to the fringes of the group with little to offer. Every day is the same for her punctuated by awkward exchanges in the supermarket, Dutch lessons and overly jolly texts to friends who all appear to be having a better time than she is. Catching herself sliding into apathy, she tries out at a choir, meeting Colette, abrasive, nosy and pushy, who demands her number, firing off a string of texts as soon as they part. By the time they meet, our narrator has been warned off Colette by another choir member. She drifts on, becoming obsessed with pointless tasks in an effort to fill the free time she’d longed for, occasionally meeting Colette who is at first persistent but gradually backs off, seemingly finding more forthcoming people to befriend until it’s our narrator who appears to be the stalker. By the end of the year, a decision must be made.

I’m reduced to the outline of myself, small and compact, and barely able to elaborate on the facts that were established when we first met.

Walker’s brief novella is an unsettling read, an intimate interior monologue which becomes increasingly discomfiting as our narrator’s isolation takes hold. Threaded through her experience in this new country where she doesn’t entirely understand social conventions nor speak the language, are memories of her earlier life, some in stark contrast to this new, lonely existence. A paranoia slips in as she spots Colette with fellow acquaintances and she begins to question her own judgement. She longs to be a part of something, to belong somewhere, increasingly feeling that she’s losing her sense of herself but not knowing how to restore it. A powerful evocation of loneliness delivered in evocative prose which makes it all the more disturbing.

Fairlight Books: Oxford ‎ 9781914148286 144 pages Paperback (Read via NetGalley)

24 thoughts on “Temper by Phoebe Walker: A year of loneliness”

  1. This seems like a must read to someone who’s also – twice- navigated the complexities of living in a different culture, and often moved somewhere new, here within the UK, experiencing the difficulties of finding a way to belong. I’ll look out for it.

  2. I’ve worked with a lot of trailing spouses moving to countries where they don’t know the language or anybody (as well as been one myself), so this sounds like a very familiar story to me.

      1. It can be very tough on the family. I was also the French speaker, so my ex-husband (instead of learning French, which he was offered for free at work) expected me to make every single appointment for him and handle all the admin, then blamed me if things didn’t work out well. Not my fondest memories!

  3. For some reason it strikes me that this might be a potentially distressing read, loneliness being so prevalent these days. Sounds good, but I am not sure if I could handle reading it.

    1. The experience is confined to just a year but Walker is very good at evoking feelings of loneliness and alienation so it is an uncomfortable read at times.

  4. This does sound a very unsettling read but one that will surely resonate for a lot of people – as the other comments show! I’m not a freelancer but I switched to working from home during the pandemic and we’ve not gone back, it is very challenging even in my home town and still part of a team.

  5. This is why I’m not a fan of the whole work from home thing. I only worked from home very briefly over one summer and not only did I find it isolating but I found it really hard to motivate myself to get the work done. I’m sure it works for some people, but I’m sure this book is a pretty accurate description of the pitfalls for many others.

    1. I’m sure you’re right. I devised a routine that worked for me but had to find a way of building in social contact. It wouldn’t have worked if I’d lived alone, either.

  6. This sounds like a particularly modern story, with the central character juggling working alone, isolation and negotiating life in a new country. That lonliness is particularly a modern problem I’m sure.

    1. I suspect you’re right, given how easy remote working is. I’m not sure I could have continued working from home if I lived on my own even in my home town let alone in a country whose language I couldn’t speak.

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