Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

pondClaire-Louise Bennett’s debut made a huge splash across the, well, pond when it was first published in Ireland last year. It’s a sure bet the book’s overseas success will have a ripple effect here. Corny reviewing jargon aside, Pond is a fascinating and utterly immersive reading experience that speaks volumes about the author’s creative process and delivers insights in droves.

The book is a collection of 20 interconnected short stories, some lasting not even a page. Each is narrated by the same woman of indeterminate age and loosely centers on — even fixates on, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion — an object, string of emotions or theme. When spliced together, these mostly plotless thought pieces paint a patchwork yet intimate portrait of the woman’s mostly solitary life in the Irish countryside.

Over the course of just under 200 pages, we never find out the narrator’s name, nor do we uncover too many concrete specifics about her past, where she’s headed in the future or the town she calls home, except that she resides in a cozy wooded cottage with a pond nearby.

But it almost doesn’t matter. By the book’s end, we’ve become deeply in tune with, even seduced by, her zany personality quirks and rich inner monologue precisely because of the tidbits of detail Bennett does permit us to see.

For example, our narrator — let’s call her “N” — admits to needing alcohol to “acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex.” She purposefully busies herself in other rooms when a date — this “awful and accustomed entity” — arrives and makes his way in for a romantic evening.

Yet she recalls exchanging nearly 2,000 “graphic and obscene” emails with a beau during an 18-month-long lust-driven affair before they split, delighting in how fun it was to “linguistically lay bare” all the ways in which she wanted to … well, you know.

In “Morning, Noon & Night,” we learn that N once stood in the same spot in front of a shop, doing nothing, for 30 minutes — felled by “a sense of fundamental redundancy.” Not long afterward, she dropped out of graduate school to work in a bike repair shop. “My wherewithal had quite dried up you see, I’d snubbed it for so long,” she shares with refreshing frankness. “The hopelessness of everything I was trying to occupy myself with was at last glaringly crystal clear.”

But the trajectory of N’s daily routine isn’t what’s important. Instead, what makes “Pond” so remarkable is Bennett’s ability to capture the mysterious essence of objects and volatility of moments in just a few choice words, on page after page after page.

A palm’s worth of flaked almonds in N’s morning porridge resembles “fingernails that have come away from a hand which has just seen the light of day.” The preholiday ritual of putting up Christmas decorations becomes an occasion where “one feels turbulent and extrinsic and can’t wait for it all to slump backwards into its shambolic velvet envelope and shuffle off down the hill.” An ex-flame’s resurfaced love letter is “a pell-mell and furious thrashing out of his craving and cowardice.”

Perhaps Bennett describes her uncanny way with words best during an interview with the Irish Times in May 2015: “In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world, so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you. It was the interplay between these destabilising lacunae and engrossing impressions that I wanted to somehow get on the page. … Objects are not simply insensate functional things, but materials, substances, which have an aura, an energy — even, occasionally, a numinosity. Categories lose their hold and the surrounding environment is rewritten and revealed.”

For most of Pond, we get the feeling that N, this curmudgeonly, exquisitely observant, puttering old (young?) narrating ninny, might be quite off her rocker — and that’s what so great about her. Her heated rants and witty digressions about all manners of minutiae, from the deterioration of her three-burner cooker to wearing her tights and knickers inside out on purpose, to the pressure of growing vegetables, are so acutely discerning, so compulsively readable and wacky, that we hang on to her every word.

There’s also a softer, subtler takeaway at play. Bennett has written a book about solitude. What it means to become smitten with the simple joy of putting fruit in a bowl on a stoneware window ledge. Feeling terrorized yet emboldened by an unnamed “monster” outside while standing at a window, ironing shirts.

“It’s been watching me all along, all my life,” N says. But “between you and me I can’t be at all sure where it is I’d be without it.”

In “Lady of the House,” the penultimate story in the book, N shares that she doesn’t “want to be in the business of turning things into other things … as if making the world smaller.” In a sense, that’s exactly what Bennett’s done with Pond. She’s diffused our often confusing and chaotic world into something more manageable, yet all the while making itty-bitty molehills into mountains.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 22, 2016)

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