In­trigu­ing de­but daz­zles with am­bi­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

What is Pond, An­glo-Ir­ish writer Claire-Louise Bennett’s de­but book? A novel? A col­lec­tion of short sto­ries? A se­ries of dis­crete but con­nected apho­risms and vi­gnettes?

De­spite praise for Pond from au­thors in Bri­tain such as Anne En­right, Deb­o­rah Levy, Eimear McBride and Colum McCann, and good re­views in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Guardian, the an­swer, like ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one in the book, isn’t clear.

Bennett’s ap­proach is at first most rem­i­nis­cent of Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s My Strug­gle se­ries in its pro­fu­sion of of­ten quo­tid­ian de­tail, de­spite the brevity of many sto­ries, some no more than a few lines long.

And it re­calls experiments such as Samuel Beck­ett’s Ping (‘‘all known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceil­ing one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just …”) in which the words them­selves hide what Au­gust Strind­berg ob­served was the mean­ing of the si­lence be­tween them. Bennett writes: English, strictly speak­ing, is not my first lan­guage by the way. I haven’t dis­cov­ered what my first lan­guage is so for the time be­ing I use English words in or­der to say things … re­gret­tably, I don’t think my first lan­guage can be writ­ten down at all. I’m not sure it can be made ex­ter­nal you see. I think it has to stay where it is; sim­mer­ing in the elas­tic gloom be­twixt my flick­er­ing or­gans.

Seem­ingly the ran­dom mus­ings of an anony­mous nar­ra­tor in an uniden­ti­fi­able Ir­ish vil­lage, the only con­crete images in Pond are fo­cused on the lit­tle ev­ery­day things right un­der our noses: ba­nanas and oat­cakes and por­ridge, tomato paste and veg­etable gar­dens, al­monds and fin- ger­nails, earth and rain and cows. The nar­ra­tor is ev­ery­where — and no one.

At first Pond seems as aim­less and elu­sive as the nar­ra­tor. It can be ini­tially frus­trat­ing, try­ing to work out ex­actly what’s go­ing on, what’s re­ally be­ing said, who’s re­ally say­ing it, in a stream of con­scious­ness full of asides and al­lu­sions that echoes Vir­ginia Woolf’s Mrs Dal­loway or A Room of One’s Own, or more re­cently McBride’s ac­claimed A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

And so, de­spite the of­ten quo­tid­ian de­tails and jaunty (and some­times amus­ingly pre­ten­tious) voice, and in the ab­sence of any real nar­ra­tive within each story or frag­ment, you find your­self search­ing for mean­ing, whether lit­eral or metaphor­i­cal, in the way Sal­man Rushdie once ob­served it was pre­cisely this par­tial na­ture that could be so evoca­tive: “the shards … ac­quire greater sta­tus, greater res­o­nance, be­cause they are re­mains; frag­men­ta­tion makes triv­ial things seem like sym­bols, the mun­dane ac­quir­ing nu­mi­nous qual­i­ties.”

Even some­times strik­ingly fa­mil­iar ob­ser­va­tions — about a fail­ing cooker, the right time to eat por­ridge, the anx­i­ety of what to bring to a party — trans­form into some­thing else en­tirely: a med­i­ta­tion on the bru­tal­ity of love; a re­count­ing of a novel (within the novel) of a woman iso­lated by a catas­tro­phe; a vis­ceral fan­ta­si­sa­tion of rape. Within these pre­cise de­scrip­tions and al­lu­sive di­gres­sions is a “caul­dron of lan­guage” in which lan­guage is de­ployed “in a way I’d not used it be­fore, to tran­scribe such an in­ti­mate area of my be­ing that I’d never be­fore at­tempted to lin­guis­ti­cally lay bare”.

One thing that es­pe­cially irks the nar­ra­tor is the warn­ing sign erected in front of the pond near her home: “if it were left up to me, I wouldn’t put a sign up next to a pond say­ing pond, ei­ther I’d write some­thing else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn’t bother at all”.

What is the pond, in which the nar­ra­tor throws some­thing “bro­ken” and “pre­cious” that will not sink? What do the rip­ples sig­nify? Com­mu­nity? Con­scious­ness? The af­ter-ef­fects of trauma? Gas­ton Bachelard’s re­flec­tions on wa­ter? Henry David Thoreau’s Walden? Shake­speare’s Ophe­lia? Ten­nyson’s Lady of Shalott? The Ad­vaita Vedanta maxim about how our

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