Heartwood mostly focuses on older books, but once in a while I’m so taken with a new release that I simply must tell people about it. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is such a book, one of the most dazzling debuts I’ve read. It could be labeled an experimental novel or linked short stories or even autofictional memoir without really mattering much to me (a pond is a pond is a mudhole). What does matter is how Bennett puts you inside her narrator’s head. I don’t know that it’s voice necessarily (but what a voice!), or even the quirky richness of the main character’s personality, but rather a kind of intensity, a shared personable intimacy, as if the reader is discovering and experiencing the author’s thoughts at the same time that she is writing them down.
The book focuses on an unnamed young woman who has moved to an old stone cottage in the rural countryside on the west coast of Ireland. The chapters often feature small details of daily living which serve as unlikely launching pads for wide-ranging meditations on recent or distant events in her life, relationships past and present, or things going on right inside or outside her cottage. For example, the broken control knobs on her mini-oven, or the act of taking a bath during a storm, or simply cleaning the fireplace grate will trigger a flood of unexpected reflections on such things as the intensity of feelings upon encountering a forgotten love letter, memories of reading a book about the last woman alive, feeling alienated from a particular place and its history. She moves from topic to topic in a perfectly natural but discursive way, telling us everything in a voice that is exactly right, conveying her wit, intelligence, gentle misanthropy and sense of wonder.
Here are some of the themes that stood out for me: a keen attention to the earth – to the everyday dirt, mud, stones, ponds, gardens, storm-blown leaves and other detritus; a concern with language, both to uncover one’s understanding of things but also in that it can misdirect, and its inability to fully capture and communicate experience; the value of solitude; a background fear of the unknown or imagined, and a compulsive interest in embracing it; love in all its complexity – as all-consuming, obliterating, brutal, inexplicable, happy; the unaccountable workings of the mind and imagination; the pressures of history; and the challenge to attune yourself to the “earth’s embedded logos,” to experience a “deep and direct accordance with things.”
I can’t begin, in this short review, to do justice to this phenomenal book; there’s so much going on and, from one perspective anyway, it seems to demand immersion and living-through rather than description and analysis. But let me, as further examples, at least chart some of the unexpected jumps in the first long chapter, “Morning, Noon, and Night.” The chapter opens, comically enough, with a detailed consideration of what makes the best breakfast food but then takes up such things as: living without purpose but just to take things in; abandoning academia; the purchase of a couple of pieces of textile art and changes in what she sees in them; how to talk of what most moves us would spoil it; fulsome sex and the pleasure of writing lustful, salacious emails; finding a secret garden and becoming an accidental gardener; a quiet early evening of intently listening in the garden. This chapter so impressed me that I found myself reading it again immediately.
Librarians have a tendency to compare and connect books, even though the most unique and striking books can only be crudely compared to anything else. So, yes, I encourage you to read Pond, it is beautifully idiosyncratic, and I will add that anyone who admires what Bennett has done with her female lead might also want to look at Robert Thomas’s Bridge (one of my favorite books of 2014), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo.
Now I’m going to shut up and return to rereading the rest of this book.