Claire-Louise Bennett’s 2015 novel Pond was a minor masterpiece offering an account in granular detail of the life of a solitary woman living on the west coast of Ireland. Her second novel, Checkout 19, is more expansive in scope and scale, as Bennett reflects on her youth spent in England, in “the fastest growing town in Europe”, where she worked at a checkout in a supermarket, along with her time spent at university and her travels abroad.
The novel begins with a brilliant metafictional reflection on the experience of reading: “We have a tendency don’t we of reading the last few sentences on the right page hurriedly.” This section creates an intimacy between author and reader that Checkout 19 never fully relinquishes, even through some of its more unusual episodes.
Bennett has been described as a “new Modernist” and her writing indeed navigates interiority in a style akin to Modernism. In her tragicomic reflections on existence, Bennett is most reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. Yet if this is Modernism, it is with a sharp detour via Realism, as Bennett is obsessed with the quotidian details of the material world. As Bennett writes, “Things hold life in place. Like pebbles on a blanket at the beach they stop it from drifting away.” She reflects on her preferred brand of cigarettes; the silver lamé skirt she bought at a market; even books are important objects. While for some people a book is an aesthetic choice, for Bennett reading is a necessity: “Turning the pages … that is how I have gone on living.”
Checkout 19 comprises many curious interludes in Bennett’s young adulthood, including the rewriting of the story of her first fictional character, Tarquin Superbus, who shares his name with an historical figure. The novel captures her sensibility as a solitary and sensitive person attracted to life’s peculiarities. There is always a kind of reclamation in these accounts: the sense that Bennett is bridging a rupture.
In the final sublime section of Checkout 19, the meditations coalesce around some of her life’s more disturbing events which, she writes, had a “fracturing effect”. Literature and writing helped her to reshape herself around these experiences. Stylistically, Checkout 19 evidences this in its kaleidoscopic approach to Bennett’s account of becoming – as a writer and a woman. Literature happens, suggests Bennett, at the extremity of experience; writing involves picking up what remains in the ashes of that experience and making something of it.
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett".
During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.