Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is earthy and dark – and very hard to write about

Like Lydia Davis, Bennett uses a solitary, highly educated female narrator who contemplates chores with a literary-linguistic cast of mind.

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Claire-Louise Bennett’s disorientating, exhilarating debut, Pond, was first published by the Dublin press Stinging Fly, responsible in recent years for unearthing some of the liveliest fiction writers in English. Where Kevin Barry (City of Bohane) and Colin Barrett (Young Skins) had their British rights snapped up by Random House, Bennett’s first book appears here courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions, an independent press freer to take risks. Hard to write about, Pond must have been harder to publish: labels don’t stick and reference points only go so far.

Subdivided into 20 parts – “episode” or “story” doesn’t seem right – with separate titles, it is narrated by an unnamed woman who rents a cottage alone in the west of Ireland. To gloss it this way gives a more blunt impression than you get from reading the book, which is neither a character study nor a work of “place”. Bennett has been compared to Lydia Davis and you can see the similarities. The shortest section, “Stir-Fry”, runs in its entirety thus:

I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that, so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.

Like Davis, Bennett uses a solitary, highly educated female narrator who contemplates chores with a literary-linguistic cast of mind, worrying about objects that don’t work. But a Davis story tends to pursue a single idea; Bennett’s narration generally sparks off at tangents, breathless yet still precise, and there is a wrong-footing range of registers that puts you in mind of James Kelman. And Pond is earthy, bodily, dark. In “Stir-Fry”, what is it that the narrator never wants to see again?

Existential angst results from two of the three plastic control knobs cracking on a Baby Belling-style cooker that is no longer manufactured – the narrator has to transfer the single remaining knob to whichever dial she needs to turn. The situation would provoke Davis to amused contemplation; it makes Bennett’s narrator think of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (1963), a post-apocalyptic novel about an unnamed woman who may be the last person alive, eking out her supplies as she writes a diary. You sense that for Bennett, the question of who the woman in The Wall is addressing – if there is no one left to read her account – isn’t dystopian but fundamental to writing.

No keys are dispensed. We learn that the narrator was a postgraduate student who didn’t complete her thesis but we don’t find out why. She mentions France, Berlin, Los Angeles; she has had relationships. At one point, she says that her vagina sounds like frogs and she reveals, while discussing compost, that she likes worms and has “no problem picking them up, which is unusual and thus gives me a clear advantage in certain situations because it means I can fling them at people if I feel like it and that never fails to cheer me up”.

It is tempting to cherry-pick Pond for statements that embody the anti-novelistic attitudes it implies. The narrator says she won’t bother describing a sunset because everyone has seen one; she also observes of fiction that “the pressure exerted by so much emphatic character exposition and plotted human endeavour becomes stifling”. Bennett’s free play might make some readers long for restraint but an early passage gives a hint of what she is up to. Her narrator has strong feelings about a sign that her land-
lady erects next to her pond. It reads “pond”:

. . . and quite frankly I would be disgusted to the point of taking immediate vengeance if I was brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it. Oh I’d be hopping . . . One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one . . . 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 and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable.

If Bennett’s title seems inadequate for the book she has written, that seems to be her point – words are. A truism of the disenchanted avant-garde, maybe, but Pond makes it new.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (184pp, £10.99)

This article appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires

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