If you like clear classifications, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett is not your kind of book. Is it a novel? A loosely linked collection of stories, with poetical fragments? Or something else entirely?
Of course it doesn’t actually matter what this gorgeous little book is. It’s beautiful, that’s all. Bennett has a thrilling way with sentences and thoughts provided you’re a reader who prefers journeys to destinations. Pond has no plot or story and the specifics are lightly sketched. Bennett’s unnamed narrator is a former academic living in a historic cottage in Ireland by herself, and the pieces frequently begin with a kind of mundane musing – the way a leaf blows in an open window during a storm, or the suitability of various types of fruit to windowsill storage – and relaxes into profound and sad thoughts on her existence. We learn that she has strong feelings on the timing of breakfast foods (“If a neighbour has been overheard or the towels folded the day’s too far in and porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive …”) and wonders about her alcohol consumption (“I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk”). She has a fondness for fountain pens and shabby clothes. Most of her relationships seem to be in the past. It’s a lonely life, but not an empty one.
The book’s title is inspired by an early chapter/story called “The Big Day”. The narrator’s cottage is in some kind of farm complex, with a main house and associated outbuildings and, in preparation for an open day, someone has placed a sign next to the pond that says “Pond”. It’s for safety reasons, she knows, but she fears that the vital ability of people to notice things is imperilled by such obviousness. To Bennett, noticing matters.
There are more of these content/context relationships in Pond’s musings; for example, the narrator is reading The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, in which an unnamed narrator, the last survivor in a dystopian world, records her isolated life. Noticing, though, is a recurrent theme through this complex and layered work. “… with enough practice,” she writes, “one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.” Pond is the culmination of this philosophy, a moving masterclass in the connections between things and feelings and thoughts. LS
Picador, 184pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond ". Subscribe here.