Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
New York. Riverhead Books. 2016. 195 pages.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut novel, Pond, follows an unnamed young woman who takes up residence in a village on Ireland’s west coast. Initially relishing the anonymity, the protagonist befriends her landlady and takes on lovers, yet her experiences with a lush backyard garden and her own imagination offer her much more satisfaction than most human interaction.
A beauty of Pond is that it resists definition, reading as a novel, a novel-in-stories, or a story collection, and therein also lies some of its power and a key theme of the novel: the need to welcome experience on its own terms, without the constraints of human language. In “The Big Day,” the protagonist is bothered by a sign her landlady has staked next to the garden pond: “I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying Pond.” Later, in preparation for a celebration, her landlady rents a portable toilet for the property with “a sign stuck upon it saying Toilet.” This humorous turn leads the protagonist to conclude that her first language is not English at all but one “simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.”
One of Bennett’s many gifts as a writer lies in highlighting the totemic power of everyday things. The main character finds joy in the science of properly placing fruit in bowls on her windowsill. Ink pens have a hierarchy and are used for different moods and occasions. Bennett’s prose is always lyrical, precise, and observant, reviving the world as readers might know it. In one particularly moving section, “Control Knobs,” the protagonist frets that only one control knob remains for her kitchen cooker, which she transfers from one prong to another after the two others deteriorate and split, rendering them useless. In the pages that follow, her unsuccessful search for replacements becomes a resonant meditation on time passing and mortality.
In the end, Pond is a luminous book that illuminates the rich interior life of its central character completely. Patient readers will be well rewarded.
Fashion Institute of Technology
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