If your idea of a great read requires a rousing plot line, Claire-Louise Bennett's "Pond" probably isn't going to float your boat. But if you're excited by the kind of writing that can transport you deep into the oddly beguiling, meditative reflections of a woman living alone in a thatched-roof, stone cottage on Ireland's Atlantic coast, then this uncategorizable book will leave you positively buoyant.
"Pond," which was first published by a small press in Ireland last year, arrives emblazoned with praise from fellow writers, thrilled to encounter a fresh new voice from seemingly out of nowhere. Like her narrator, Bennett moved to the Irish countryside after dropping out of a PhD program and started exploring different approaches to writing that focused on her response to physical space more than people and relationships.
Reading Bennett's book of loosely linked stories is a lovely retreat from the cacophony of contemporary life. "Sinking words into the pages," with a "moping sky" that reflects the narrator's aimlessness. While we don't learn many specifics about this woman, we do get to know her interior and exterior landscapes quite well.
Voice is key in an introspective, meandering narrative such as this, and Bennett's is wryly intelligent. In between quirky, often funny musings about breakfast ("Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice") and broken oven knobs, we learn that she's thrown in the towel on her doctoral dissertation after three years and many thousands of words. She's adrift. "I stopped doing what I wasn't really doing and got a job in a bicycle shop," she writes. She professes laziness and "radical immaturity — characterised by a persistent lack of ambition," even when it comes to growing vegetables: "As with most mensurable areas of life I demonstrated no ambition whatsoever as a grower and selected to cultivate low-maintenance crops only. Potatoes, spinach and broad beans. That was it."
The book frequently channels childhood memories and wonder. The first story, "Voyage in the Dark," alerts us instantly, with its repetition of "little girls," that Bennett is no ordinary writer: "Oh, but we were only little girls, little girls, there on the cusp of female individuation, not little girls for long."
In "The Big Day," the narrator sketchily recalls dropping by a neighbor's house, perhaps to return something, though she doesn't clearly remember what brought her there. What she does remember is how much she enjoyed just sitting in her neighbor's kitchen sipping a cup of tea the woman had probably given to her before heading out the garden: "I think I felt as if I'd just come home from school on a Thursday." Yet, also like a child, she is easily riled. She's outraged by a cautionary notice her landlady puts up by the pond so kids won't run into it unaware — a sign that states the obvious: "Pond." She rails, "That sort of moronic busy-bodying happens with such galling regularity throughout childhood of course and it never ceases to be utterly vexing."
Why the overreaction? It turns out her real gripe is with spoilers that curtail natural curiosity: "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," she complains, sounding more than a bit like the doctoral student she once was.
Gradually, a portrait of this often anxious, rather solitary woman and her somewhat unhappy love life emerges. Walking alone one drippy morning with a coat thrown on over her nightclothes, she goes into high alert at the sight of a stranger, immediately fearing violation. But then she wonders, shockingly — and appalled by her "own twisted longing" — if it would be so awful "if it — that — were to happen right now."
Another realization strikes her as she cleans out her grate: "I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk." But when she sets aside a rainy afternoon "to ruminate upon it in a deliberate and dispassionate fashion," she finds that "this levelheaded approach bulldozed my curiosity and stirred up nothing new to revive it." Her choice of the word "bulldozed" is practically a signpost that says "Talented Writer."
Disappointment is a recurrent theme in these 20 stories. Some are themselves disappointing — slight or overly abstruse — but many are as resonant as poetry. The shortest is a sort of literary amuse-bouche about discarding a stir-fry dinner into which she'd deliberately tossed "all the things I never want to see again."
Beneath its shimmery surface, "Pond" repeatedly plumbs the myriad setbacks and frustrations of adult life – whether as major as a failed romance or as minor as the irreplaceable knobs on an obsolete kitchen range. Yet Bennett gives us reason to be grateful for these disappointments, "because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream." And daydreams, she writes, return her to her "unalloyed self again" — an idiosyncratic self she pours so skillfully into this brightly original book.
McAlpin also reviews books regularly for NPR.org, Washington Post and other publications.
By Claire-Louise Bennett