Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

I loved this book. It’s a collection of short stories but it also feels like a novel in that each story hangs next to and within the others. The world of one woman’s daily life is so meticulously drawn that an atmosphere of unsettling attention draws you in and holds you lingering for paragraphs over the silence of another’s house, how drink is the only way she’ll muddle her decision making mind enough to sleep with a man, or how to replace the knobs on her outdated cooker.

I was leant the book and so I took great care not to mark the pages, turn them down or underline anything. Instead I now have a book filled with pieces of paper that mark passages I want to return to. ‘The Big Day’ (see below), ‘A Little Before Seven’ (explores her relationship between men and alcohol), ‘Control Knobs’ (about her outdated cooker) and ‘Lady of the House’ (about monsters, control and self-sufficiency) are four of my favourite pieces, though I like them all. 

The first provides the meaning behind the title, Pond, I think. The big day is a village opening. Her landlord and other residents have looked into the history of the houses and land, exploring old photographs, labelling where things are and used to be. One of her neighbours has gone off to label the pond.

… I can’t help but assess the situation from the child’s perspective. 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. That sort of moronic busy-bodying happens with such galling regularity throughout childhood of course and it never ceases to be utterly vexing. 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 and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.

p40-41 from the Fitzcarraldo Editions version

You can see how the prose is a wonderfully rich mixture of complex sentences, precise vocabulary with a conversational tone that feels strangely old-fashioned – ‘Oh I’d be hopping’ writes itself out of Enid Blyton. It’s a lightness of touch that reveals a self-conscious self-mockery as if the character is amused by the seriousness with which they view the seemingly mundane. Of course it is a serious matter. There is a radical heart to this accounting. Her life, her choices, matter, add to the wider pattern of human behaviour and are part of the unravelling of human experience. The stories challenge society’s naming, its colonial and patriarchal desire to claim and label places, people and experiences. 

It’s a fabulous collection that I suspect I’m going to buy once I’ve given back my borrowed copy. I thoroughly recommend it and feel really excited about reading more of Claire-Louise Bennett’s work.

I’ll be reviewing Corregidora by Gayl Jones next.

Practicalities by Marguerite Duras

A delightful insight into Marguerite Duras’ thoughts and experiences, Practicalities is exciting to read and was created in a unique way that is, in itself, inspiring. Pieces that were originally transcriptions of texts spoken to Jérôme Beaujour, each short text was then read over and modified between the two of them.

… none of the pieces deals with a topic exhaustively. And none reflects my general views about a particular subject: I don’t have general views about anything, except social injustice. At most the book represents what I think sometimes, some days, about some things. So it does incidentally represent what I think. But I don’t drag the millstone of totalitarianism, i.e. inflexible, thought around with me.

You’ll know already if this gets your fingers itching for more pages to turn.

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Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The final, delightfully attentive, part of Levy’s trilogy of living autobiography.

There is a quality of absorption that springs from Deborah Levy’s three living autobiographies. The writing is both sharp and gentle – perhaps it is the iron fist in the silk glove (silk being important for Levy in this the third of her non-fiction trilogy) – that eases you into her world, in which she travels and lives in different places, surrounded by different objects, walking in different shoes that sometimes have the wrong soles, and then hits you with a truth about what it means to be a woman and a writer in our world that sends you reeling. I feel as if I’m offered a new state to live in, a new way of attending to the events, the things, the conversations with friends and strangers, the overheard. I’m gifted some of Levy’s powers of attentive thought.

I like that she calls this trilogy of non-fiction about being a female writer, living autobiography because I do feel that I live the events, thoughts and ideas that she writes about. She generously invites me in through the door of her unreal estate, the house of her mind; she lets me put on her shoes; she asks me to consider her and then, of course, myself, in this new environment. Who built the house? Upon whose land is it built? What rights do I have to it? How can I live there? Should I leave? What can I take with me? What do I want my house to be like?

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Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

A collection of short stories that reminds us of the wild inside us.

This is a very beautifully presented collection of short stories that do indeed stay with you after reading. I am particularly fond of four: ‘Mrs Fox’ that won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013 about a wife who, well, you can guess; ‘Wilderness’ about walking along the Southern Cape coastline in South Africa; ‘Later, His Ghost’ set in a dystopian future where winds decimate the landscape; and ‘Evie’ about a sudden development of sexual desire. 

I like others, of course, but it is these four in particular that stay in my mind. If I were hard pressed, I’d probably pick ‘Wilderness’ as my favourite because it combines so many different things in one short blast. It’s an excellent showcase for what the short story can do. It can pack so many disparate ideas, feelings, emotions, and political standpoints into a snapshot of an hour or so. One English woman walks along the coastline with a relatively new South African boyfriend, of whom she is tiring, and his old childhood friend. Concepts of fear, danger, wildness versus ownership, it’s all in there, bristling alongside the complexities of friendship and desire. 

This sense of mutability, of our status as beings of nature in whom the wild still lives, sits at the edges of all of these stories and is what makes the collection such a pleasure to read. They tilt one’s look at the world enough to force us to see it afresh, to delight and be unsettled by it all over again. 

I haven’t read Sarah Hall’s other work, but it makes me want to. 

Winner of The East Anglian Book Award for Fiction, Madame Zero is a very enjoyable read indeed.

I’ll be reviewing Real Estate by Deborah Levy next.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Short review: brilliant modern myth-making.

In 1976 David Baptiste found and fell in love with a mermaid in the waters of Black Conch in the Caribbean. When the yearly fishing competition opened, two white men from Florida hired a crew and sailed out to catch the biggest fish. They caught the mermaid.

They string her upside down by the sea and drink in the local bar. David cuts her down and takes her home, planning to put her back in the sea. 

Next day, no one knows if it was madness, drunkenness that had all those men believing they’d strung up a mermaid.

David doesn’t take her back straight away. As she sits in water he salts, in his bathtub, the mermaid starts to lose her tail. Tail, fins, scales, webbing fall away revealing a young woman beneath. A woman, Aycayia, whose beautiful voice and enticing dancing, made men long for her and women hate her enough to curse her, many hundreds of years ago, long before the white man killed her people, and banish her to the loneliness of the sea.

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Short review: an exploration of the domestic life behind Shakespeare’s work that does what it says on the tin.

Hamnet is the story of Shakespeare’s home life or, at least, some of it. From the beginning we know we are getting the story of the death of his son, Hamnet. We know that Hamnet, back in those times, was synonymous with the name Hamlet. We know what is coming, and yet, we are drawn in and we suffer when we finally get there.

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Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Short review: excellent exploration of middle-class woman seeking meaning in, and questioning the morality of, her life.

I loved this book. It’s so considered, so carefully wrought, like something distilled and matured in a cellar whose journey to the light feels exciting, a little taboo.

It’s the kind of book that a creative writing tutor would tell you to avoid writing because it is exceedingly expositional – the whole thing written as if spoken to a person called Jeffers who we never meet and know very little about other than that he is a moralist. The fact this exposition works just makes it more appealing to read.

The book opens with a description of running from the devil on a train, a devil who is fiddling with a little girl. Everyone is ignoring him and what he’s doing. The protagonist tries to ignore him too, but everywhere she runs she finds him sat opposite her again. This beginning, which comes after the triggering moment of discovering L’s paintings when staying in Paris, is never fully explained but seems to express something of what it means to see and not act, to be aware of something bad taking place but to seek to avoid looking at and to avoid doing anything about it. There is a comment on our society here.

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The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

Short review: inspiring follow-up to Things I Don’t Want to Know.

I loved the first in this trilogy of autobiographies initially inspired by George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I write’. This second one was equally excellent.

As I’ve been better at reading than writing reviews lately, I wish I’d written my review of this book just after reading it, rather than now. As I turn its pages, looking at all the corners I’ve bent down to return to, what strikes me is how good Levy is at creating a feeling, a cohesive emotional and intellectual sensibility throughout a book that holds and shapes your experience of reading. You come away with an understanding of what she’s saying that feels more like the heightened emotional sense you get from a good conversation, than either an essay or an autobiography. You come away with the tingly feeling of inspiration.

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Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Short review: disturbing reflection on our obsession with making virtual connections.

I’m a huge fan of Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream and so was eagerly awaiting the paperback of this novel, named by the Guardian and The Times as the Best Novel of 2020. I knew it would be very different but I was ready to be taken somewhere new by the author.

What I got wasn’t anything I was expecting and yet it took me in a direction I wasn’t surprised to find myself in. An exploration of what connects us, of what it means to be human, is something that Fever Dream shares with Little Eyes. You can feel the same mind moving behind it.

Kentukis are small robotic creatures controlled by an inhabitant using an App. The owner buys the kentuki – it could be a panda, an owl, a rabbit, a dragon, a mole etc. – and waits for someone to inhabit it. The kentuki then moves about in their lives, following them, able to make small sounds and capable of communication only if the owner sets up an agreed system e.g. move back for no, forwards for yes, or puts an alphabet on the floor or gives them their email or telephone number.

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Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Mrs Death Misses Death is about a girl, Wolf, who meets Mrs Death at nine-years-old when a fire in her tower block home kills her mother but leaves Wolf alive. She goes on to see and talk to Mrs Death—an old black woman who checks your groceries at the supermarket till; who cleans at the hospital; who goes unnoticed, uncelebrated—using her memories to explore the deaths of Wolf’s relatives and others whom Death cannot forget. 

Though about death and mourning, the book is more about what it means to be alive. Unsurprising from the pen of a poet, the novel plays with form—never quite laid out as you expect: the text is formed of poems, script, voice, song. It plays with language, uses repetitions and refrain, rhyme and rhythm to open experience, memory and imagination into a space that invites interpretation.

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