Pond by Claire-Louise Bennet
-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns–
Pond is Claire-Louise Bennet’s first collection of stories. It is about 150 pages long and focuses on the experience of a woman living alone. Although the reader never gets to know the woman’s name, she is a fully-felt, fleshy character; her inner-most thoughts – banal, touching, occasionally hilarious – seep over the pages. The woman is complex, quirky, and full of intriguing hang-ups and views of the world. But beneath those are deeply felt emotions: this is a collection about hidden, terrible undercurrents, about the awful beneath the respectable, the shocking beneath the ordinary, tragedy beneath the comedy.
The collection comprises twenty pieces, some only a few lines long, others many pages. The first long story, ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, conveys the overall theme of the book in its subject matter. Ostensibly the story is about eating pleasures – ‘Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice […] Oatcakes along with it can be nice.’ The repetition of the word ‘nice’, when set against the mellifluous descriptions of an ‘irrepressible gathering of illustrious vegetables’, is deliberate and comic. But, of course, the story is about much more than a choice of food stuffs and Bennet’s accomplished descriptions of them. It is a story that speaks of darkness and sets out the real mental expanse of the nameless woman narrator. Porridge, if eaten too late, becomes a ‘gloomy repast from the underworld.’ Flaked almonds ‘resemble fingernails that have come away from a hand which has just seen the light of day.’ Witty, dark lady.
The narrator’s regret for past, lost loves is also hinted at in this first story, where the narrator mourns the act of writing love letters since the failure of her relationship. Bennet underpins the narrator’s sadness with mordant comedy; ‘it was nice […] [to] take a break from cobbling together yet another over-wrought academic abstract […] to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out.’ In a later story, ‘The Deepest Sea’, the narrator finds a letter from her lover – although presented lightly and comically in the opening story, the poignancy of the moment is clear in ‘The Deepest Sea’ and the few paragraphs that describe the narrator’s reaction are beautiful to read:
[reading the letter I] directly came into contact with his mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out. […] [w]hat I held in my hands felt so alive it seemed unthinkable that it did not prosper. Why does he not come through the trees right now?
The woman strikes the reader as alone but not necessarily lonely, socially awkward and unable to smoothly navigate her way around relationships. Even something as straight-forward as throwing a party is portrayed as a minefield. In ‘Finishing Touch’ the narrator articulates her over-thought ideas about parties; from suggestions as to what guests should bring (after all, ‘who wants to sit in the back of a cab with a bowl covered with tin foil in their lap wondering if what it contains is going to be met with melodious condescension [?]’), to a torturous scrutiny about who should sit on an ottoman.
Such exhausting self-assessment and hyper-awareness occurs over a plethora of subjects – relationships, cookers, vegetables, letters, and we learn in one story, ‘A Little Before Seven’, that the narrator has taken steps in the past to make it stop. For example, she drinks in order to feel at ease around men, consuming alcohol so that she is prevented from ‘scrutinising and dissecting everything that is said’, the like of which we see in earlier stories. And yet the thoughts reoccur, the scrutiny continues. A line about a storm in the short fragment ‘To A God Unknown’ captures perfectly the effect of such though-processes: the storm is ‘[g]oing around and around, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere.’
Pond has been well-received by critics and is prefaced with supportive quotes from writers such as Eimear McBride and Kevin Barry. This book is stunning in places, laugh-out-loud funny in others, and fully immersive. In fact, the reader is carried so far into the mind of the narrator that it is sometimes necessary to resurface and take pause (for this reader, at least). And yet I found myself willing the nameless woman on, wanting her to unravel her thoughts until she found peace and happiness. To hook the reader in to such an extent is an achievement.