Sooner or later, you’ll have to say something about Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. This debut collection of linked stories from an English writer who lives in Ireland may be slim, but it’s packed with vivid imagery of a quiet life, and deep reflections from an unquiet mind. It’s excellent, it’s ravishing, it’ll win a ton of awards, it’ll show up on everyone’s Best of 2016 lists. So before everyone starts asking you about Pond, here are some handy talking points.
Pond is like a really intense diary with all the specific names and locations and backstory omitted. One of the best stories (“The Big Day”) takes place entirely within the narrator’s head while she sits alone, waiting for a party to start. It’s all about her inner thoughts.
Yes, but the book moves in both inward and outward directions. It can be incredibly claustrophobic—focused on one person’s whims and daily minutiae—and incredibly expansive—suggesting worlds of detail, meaning, and personality—at the same time.
So much of Pond is concerned with domestic life. It’s like Bennett is shrinking us down to the size of a mouse and letting us explore a lonely old house.
In the mornings I flitted about my cottage, taking crockery out of the plate rack and organising it into jaunty stacks along the window ledge, slicing peaches and chopping hazelnuts, folding back the quilt and smoothing down the sheet, watering plants, cleaning mirrors, sweeping floors, polishing glasses, folding clothes, wiping casements, slicing tomatoes, chopping spring onions. And then, after lunch, I’d take a blanket up to the top garden and I’d lie down under the trees in the top garden and listen to things.
Yes, but in writing about these familiar things, her style is bravely original—so much so that Bennett has to teach us how to “read” her. Like when the narrator describes the two Japanese frames that decorate her house:
They did not feel obliged to complete the plan and so did not complete the plan. Just this, just these few details showed enough.
At time she even comments cheekily on her literary approach:
I’m quite sophisticated in all sorts of ways you see and hardly ever need to dwell upon anything. That’s right, I don’t go into things too deeply anymore—as such, when they ask, and they will ask, how it all went, and had I a nice day, I shall say it went just fine, thank you, I had a very lovely day indeed.
I love Bennett’s language.
I liked to think about all the little fishes that had nudged around and prodded at the reeds here and there. And I liked to think about the bigger fish, pike for example, that had occasionally swished past deep down and set them off nervously swaying, for miles and miles and miles perhaps. And the adrenalized coots spun out by the whirlpool of their own incessant rubbernecking and the hotheaded moorhens zigzagging to and fro. And the swans’ flotilla nests resplendent with marbled eggs. And the sly-bones heron in a world of his own. And the skaters and midges and the boatmen and the dragonflies and the snails and the spawn, and who knows what else the susurrant reeds are raided with.
I love her uncertainty. The narrator is often trying to explain her own slippery motives, which can lead to disarmingly conditional statements.
I do not remember the interior of the priest’s house. I think the wallpaper in the hallway might have been sage green. It could be the case that I went in no further than the hallway. Perhaps I just stood at the door on the street looking in at the hallway. And then down at the plastic step. Yes, I believe he was wearing trainers in fact.
This book is set in Ireland. Ireland has given us so many great writers—James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien.
Yes, but I’m more excited about today’s Irish writers—Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett.
The origin of the book’s title is a bravura passage about a nearby pond, and how someone put up a sign that says “Pond,” and why the narrator hates this sign.
One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations an inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable.
Yes, but the origin of the book itself, in some ways, is The White Review, a relatively new—and insanely classy—literary magazine from the UK that awarded Claire-Louise Bennett its inaugural short story prize.
Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founder of Fiction Advocate.