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is the only way she’ll muddle her decision making mind enough to sleep with a man, or how to replace the knobs on her outdated cooker.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(see below), ‘A Little Before Seven’ (explores her relationship between men and alcohol), ‘Control Knobs’ (about her outdated cooker) and ‘Lady of the House’ (about monsters, control and self-sufficiency) are four of my favourite pieces, though I like them all.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.

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