Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond* is the most unusual book I’ve read in years.
It’s not quite a novel in the sense that we’re used to thinking about novels (with a plot or a trajectory, even), but neither is it a collection of short stories; nor is it prose poetry (though it makes the ordinary somehow unreal, a quality I associate with poetry). I suppose, given its length, that you might think of it as vignettes organized into a novella.
In these twenty pieces, some a page or two long (or less), some the length of more traditional short stories, Ms. Bennett takes us inside the mind of an unnamed narrator, a woman living alone in a cottage on the coast of Ireland.
In self-conscious stream of consciousness, the narrator reflects on gardening, visiting her neighbors, drinking, taking a bath during a storm, the proper way to eat porridge. As these seemingly quotidian activities suggest, nothing dramatic happens in Pond, exactly—and yet it’s still riveting.
That’s because the book is really about a mind observing itself; I never knew in which direction the mildly misanthropic narrator’s mind would go as she considers her relationships to places and objects. Sometimes she’s quite funny, offering her opinion on the proper kind of tea cup (white, chipped in the right places), rhapsodizing about tomato paste (it is indeed a terribly overlooked ingredient), fretting over the deteriorating knobs on her very old and tiny stove; sometimes she seems terribly sad, too much alone, despite how much she enjoys solitude (and despite the fact that she mentions friends and lovers with some regularity). I often felt a sense of unease as I read, since it seemed the narrator, fascinated as she is by the world, isn’t quite sure she wants to be part of it.
Here she describes chopping vegetables. While often the sound is “mellow and euphonious,” late at night, she writes,
I go on with my guillotining and methodically pare down this robust gathering of swanky solanums until they lose colour. Chopping, taking it all to pieces, in a kind of contracted stupor, morning, noon and night; trying not to pay any heed to my reflection in the mirror as I do so. I can’t stand that—above all I can’t stand to see the reflection of my waist, winding back and forth, there in the mirror just to my right—looking as if it might take flight when I know very well it can’t.
As you can tell by how this review totters along, Pond is terrifically difficult to describe, though I’m very glad I became tangled up in it. I think that if you like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Thoreau, or Emily Dickinson, you’re a prime candidate to give it a try. It’s a strange book, as unsettling as often as it is beautiful, and well worth the hours you’ll spend with it.
Have you read anything unusual lately?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.