Intriguing debut dazzles with ambition
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