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Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

This book is subtitled Stories and though it may be seen as a collection of stories, it could more accurately described as scenes from the life of an English woman during the three years she lives in rural Ireland but that would probably have been too complicated as a subtitle. As such, I think it can be considered as a novel, despite what the author thinks, so it is here.

In a way, it can be described as quirky but that is both a simplistic and lazy evaluation. The unnamed narrator may well be quirky but she is more than that. She has decided to live in a fairly remote cottage (Bennett herself lives in Galway). However, while she is often alone, she is no hermit. She has a sex life and speaks to the landlady and her sister and to others. Indeed, she seems to have a few friends.

The title of the book, presumably intentionally, reminds us of Walden Pond and Thoreau’s book on his life there. But our narrator is no Thoreau and does not pretend to be. She certainly likes nature but is not too romantic about it. There are no Wordsworth moments. For example, when she sees a beautiful sunset, she says Everyone has seen a sunset—I will not attempt to describe the precise visual delineations of this one. Neither will I set down any of the things that scudded across my mind when the earth’s trajectory became so discernibly and disarmingly attested to, yet does go on to say that it has an effect on her.

We first see her interest in the natural world when she discovers, by chance, when younger, an abandoned plot. She finds out who owns it – the Catholic Church – and persuades the local priest to let her cultivate it, which he does. She is not very ambitious in her vegetable growing – 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. That was enough. But she perseveres. Indeed, vegetable growing seems to affect her love life. One time, after sex, she says I would lie in bed next to him unable to sleep and think of the potatoes and spinach and broad beans out there in the dark.

However, it is nature that she enjoys in her cottage. And then, after lunch, I’d take a blanket up to the top garden and I’d lie down under the trees in the top garden and listen to things. I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead. I would listen to a spider coming through the grass towards the blanket. I’d listen to a squabbling pair of blue tits see-sawing behind me… And each sound was a rung that took me further upwards, and in this way it was possible for me to get up really high, to climb up past the clouds, towards a bird-like exuberance, where there is nothing at all but continuous light and acres of blue.

The pond, however, is no Walden Pond. It has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I’d write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn’t bother at all. She is not impressed with it at all.

Sex/romance/love do play a part in her life, even if, as the quote above shows, vegetables/nature might be more important. However, she has a somewhat cynical attitude towards it. I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk, she comments, adding overall, relations with the man in question fared significantly better when I’d imbibed a little alcohol. Life would be better, she says, were I to select to spend time with men who are in possession of qualities that are, in the most part, of an amenable and captivating nature. However, as tempting as it is to apportion blame, I’d be issuing an inadmissibly skewed overview of my encounters if I propounded the idea that, so far, I have not met with such men. The only romantic relationship that seems to work for a while is a relationship based almost entirely upon avid fornication. It does not last.

Even on love, she does not have a positive view. She is asked to give a paper at conference. She talks About the essential brutality of love. About those adventitious souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation. Yes, that’s right. It attempted to show that in the whole history of literature love is quite routinely depicted as an engulfing process of ecstatic suffering which finally, mercifully, obliterates us and delivers us to oblivion. Dismembered and packed off. Something like that.

Apart from sex and nature, she seems to struggle a bit with life. More than once, she wonders what she is doing and why. She remembers being at a neighbour’s house, sitting on a chair, and has no idea why she is there, sitting on the chair or, indeed, where the neighbour is. Often, fairly simple tasks become complicated and difficult.

She does not like being involved. I would not deign to get involved in anything, not one single blessed thing out there. No way. There is some sort of fête, a big day for the village and while she does make a minor contribution, she does not participate and, indeed, never mentions it again. She sees an early picture of her cottage and plans to find out out more but then forgets but then adds the reason she forgot is that she does not want to be involved.

She tends to make mountains out of molehills. She has a small cooker with three knobs. Two have broken and she is worried that the third will and she will be unable to cook. Spare parts seem to be impossible to find. However, she compares this catastrophe to the fate of the heroine of Marlen Haushofer‘s Die Wand (The Wall), who is completely cut off from the world by an invisible wall and running out of supplies.

Her own problems are caused, according to her, by two problems. Where is my fucking sense of eventuality exactly?, she says, by which she means her lack of planning and organisational skills. Melancholy seems to be the other problem. Melancholia brought something out in me that felt more authentic and effortless than anything I’d previously alchemised. But maybe, just maybe, she is, in reality, a fairly normal person with her own issues and problems, as we all have our own issues and problems.

This book has already received lots of praise and deservedly so. The narrator both examines herself and and shows herself in some detail for such a short book and it is this that makes the book so interesting, as she is a complex person, unsure of herself at times, cynical at times, but also determined when she wants to be. She struggles with life to a certain degree, as many of us do, but never descends into catastrophe, sometimes taking a detached view, sometimes an aggressive view and sometimes just wondering what is going on. It is one of those books that you have to read to appreciate the quality of writing and the complex nature of its subject. And, yes, as I said, she may call it Stories but it is a coherent and unified portrait of one person and should be considered a novel.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Stinging Fly