claire-louise bennett

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2015

Another year of diminishing blog activity. Please don’t plot it on a graph year by year, or I will have to rename this site Asymptote. As with last year, I’ve included a few titles that I really liked but haven’t reviewed. In a third tradition, titles are listed alphabetically by author. If these books have anything in common, it is probably strangeness and strength of voice.

EDIT: I somehow forgot to include Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, which is odd as it’s not just one of the best books I read this year, but one of the best books I’ve ever read. I keep meaning to write about it here, but this might have to do.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 21.04.57

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond
Seductive, sinister stories told by a woman whose inner and outer life are often hard to tell apart, not least for her.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women
A wondrous discovery, like finding a new Jean Rhys or Raymond Carver with an intimate, funny tone that makes this a rare collection of stories that just gets better and better as you race through them.

Jeremy Chambers: The Vintage and the Gleaning
A strong debut novel that takes the slightly worn world of Australian men’s-men and makes it vital and surprising. I learn from his Twitter account that the author is living with CFS/ME; I truly hope he is well enough soon to write more.

Gavin Corbett: Green Glowing Skull
In a year of strange books, this is the most cracked of the lot. Funny and energetic and bold as hell, and almost impossible to describe without making it sound like the worst book in the world.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments
A funny, fizzy memoir of a parent (see also Adam Mars-Jones’s Kid Gloves), which reminds us that if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith)
The first book I read this year and one of the most memorable. Resistance, disappearance and manipulation in three linked stories. Can Han’s forthcoming Human Acts really live up to it as everyone says?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
This book ruined weeks of my reading year, by making everything I read immediately afterwards seem thin and stupid. Ish is back on form after the (to me) slightly disappointing Never Let Me Go and Nocturnes.

Miranda July: The First Bad Man
A complete revelation and one of the most moving and disturbing novels I read all year. Definitely not quirky.

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women (tr. John Fletcher)
A trio of novellas that combine stories of women’s relationships with their families and sinuous sentences that I read and reread with delight.

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (tr. Martin Aitken/Misha Hoekstra)
A collection of funny and brutal stories, and a novella written in headlines, which is much better than it sounds.

Paul Theroux: The Mosquito Coast
I’d never read Theroux before. Who knew he was this good? The Mosquito Coast has one of the great monstrous father figures in modern fiction; the story rattles along at a clip and flashes brightly.

Hugo Wilcken: The Reflection
I read this exceptional experimental thriller three times this year and, if other books weren’t forever making demands, would happily go back right now for a fourth.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

The Stinging Fly Press, an offshoot of the literary magazine, has made itself a publisher to watch with its careful selection of debut writers, many of whom have gone on to award-winning, bidding-war status. They published the first books by IMPAC-winner Kevin Barry, Irish Book of the Year-winner Mary Costello and Guardian First Book Award-winner Colin Barrett. So this new book was on my radar, though it wasn’t until Twitter began filling with praise, and the press agreed, that I picked it up.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Pond is described in the blurb as a ‘collection’ but also as having unity: a “chronicle of the pitfalls and pleasures of a solitudinous life told by an unnamed woman living on the cusp of a coastal town.” That solitudinous is a wink to the reader – expect more of that sort of thing, because this is a book which denies any separability of the traditional elements of a work of fiction. The language is the character is the style is the story. It’s all about the words: one of those books that makes you realise that the story could not be told, the character could not exist, in any other style; and then makes you wonder why that isn’t the case with more books. The style is not something overlaid on pre-existing content: the style is the substance.

Which means it makes sense that the stories here are similar, often hard to tell apart in memory, as most are told in the same way (and all but the final story in the first person). It is a digressive, repetitive, obsessive voice, which worries at memories, circles around experiences and alights on the same thoughts over and over. It is a picture of a flywheeling mind, in danger of coming apart, which often reminded me of Keith Ridgway’s broken narrator in the ‘Marching Songs’ chapter from Hawthorn & Child. In the story ‘Morning, Noon, & Night’, the consistency of voice covers everything beautifully, and the only way to present this properly is to quote it at length. It gives us meticulous rumination, such as when our woman thinks about how to arrange and display fruit:

Pears don’t mix well. Pears should always be small and organised nose to tail in a bowl of their very own and perhaps very occasionally introduced to a stem of the freshest redcurrants, which ought not to be hoisted like a mantle across the freckled belly of the topmost pear, but strewn a little further down so that some of the scarlet berries loll and bask between the slowly shifting gaps.

The description is comic in its grandiosity, and she rarely says something straightforwardly when she can hide it behind protective language. After ranging across subjects so wildly that the reader can just about keep her in sight, she interrupts herself:

Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either.

This relieves the reader, like a good joke, and despite its density, Bennett’s prose is often funny. Reflecting on bathrooms, the narrator observes that she doesn’t like en suites: “as a rule I think it’s much nicer to leave a room entirely before entering another.” But at the same time it reminds us that these stories are often about the permeable barrier between inside and outside. The view we get of the external world is heavily filtered, and closely internalised. This makes a change from most first person narratives, which give us a uncluttered landscape and ignore the thickets and dead ends of how we really think. In ‘The Big Day’, we get an extrapolation of the quote above which brings the point home:

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Sometimes a direct emotional statement breaks through all this diversion and play, given extra force by the contrast with its surroundings: “On occasion, I have gone quite out of my mind with love.” But the rest is an attempt to enable us to, as the narrator wishes, “just spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.” And as the book goes on, she seems less and less like an eccentric outsider, and more and more like one of us: or perhaps it’s that the language temporarily reshapes the reader’s brain into sympathy with its way of thinking. Why else, after all, would I feel repeatedly drawn back to the stories even with little expectation of understanding them in the traditional sense?

That is to say, there are no straightforward plots, no simple stories in these stories, but this goes back to the inseparability of the elements. The language, full of curlicues and recirculations, would be irritating if delivered by a straightforward narrator – but it could not be delivered by a straightforward narrator. It is part of her. And with its richness and deformations – which become more pronounced in the later stories, particularly ‘The Gloves Are Off’ – I felt no desire for the longest stories, about 18 pages, to be any longer. That’s enough of that sort of thing. But Bennett’s resistance to A-to-B plots doesn’t stop her from filling the stories Pond with some of the strongest endings I’ve seen. In ‘The Big Day’, our woman ends her account of a new home by discovering a pond, in a way that is blunt with symbolism but powerful:

It’s not a very deep pond after all. I always believed they were endlessly deep. But when I took something down there one day I needed to get rid of fast, a broken, precious thing, I dropped it in the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible. And within moments lots of very small things, some of them creatures I suppose, collected and oscillated, slowly, along the smooth crevices of its broken precious parts.

There is a literary awareness too, from the title of the opening story, ‘Voyage in the Dark’, echoing Jean Rhys’s greatest novel, to a story, ‘Control Knobs’, where the narrator ruminates on Marlen Haushofer’s dystopian novel The Wall. The stories, too, are arranged carefully, with very short pieces alternating with the longer ones. Sometimes, like ‘Stir-Fry’, they are only a few lines long, almost one-liners with a tweak – Lydia Davis length – which seems as good a place as any to have a go at giving this review an ending as strong as Bennett’s stories:

I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that,
…..so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.