Do you ever read a book, and think to yourself, “I wish I’d written that”?
Well, I just finished reading Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett, and it was absolutely everything I’ve ever wanted in a book.
Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut novel, was published in 2016, and chronicles the experiences of a woman living alone in a rented cottage outside of a coastal village in Ireland.
I’m tempted to describe the book as a linked series of short stories, but before you think of it in that way you are going to have to toss out everything you think you know about the short story form.
These are the recorded thoughts and experiences of a woman who is engaging with life—that is to say, society, relationships, nature, and survival—in a distinctly unusual way. Her observations are minute, beautiful, and sometimes devastating. She strips herself down to the bones and peers within, and then she remarks upon the strangeness of relating this on paper:
“This all happened several years ago by the way—and I’m not absolutely sure why I’m recounting it here since it hardly situates me in a flattering light—anyway, I don’t recall exactly what he said to me, but it was exceedingly condescending and I very very clearly remember thinking why don’t you fall over.“
We never learn the narrator’s name, nor the names of anyone in her life. We hear of her neighbour, her landlady, her landlady’s sister, and her friends, but they are described just like that: my landlady, my friend. In a different book this would seem like an affectation, but in Pond it feels genuine, as though the narrator is trying to figure out how these people fit together, like a puzzle whose pieces are perhaps just slightly misshapen and won’t interlock, and that therefore their categories are, for the purpose of this exercise, more important than their individual personalities.
The cottage that she lives in is described without sentimentality, however I want nothing more than to go and live there. The narrator herself emerges in an often hilarious way, and reading this book feels like knowing her more deeply than any of the people in her life do.
The book is also a meditation on solitude. Specifically in these times that we are currently living through, it is worth thinking about how we define ourselves and our existence in regard to this. At one point the narrator describes her experience reading a book that is recognizable as Die Wand (The Wall) by Marlen Haushofer, a post-apocalyptic novel about a woman who finds herself cut off from the rest of the world after an unknown catastrophe, and must reckon with being totally alone.
“...people talk about isolation, but you’re only isolated if you think that the norm is to be integrated. Integration into the central contract isn’t necessarily the be all and end all. And if you decide not to be integrated in that way, it just means your way of connecting with the world is different. Over time you do attain an awareness where that very embodied life becomes profound, quite fulfilling and sustaining. And that’s exactly what interested me in my stories, a sense of a person on their own.”
Yes, this book is a window into a way of connecting with the world that is different. Solitude can provide us with a chance to let go of habits and expectations, and dig into ourselves a little deeper. That can be a scary thing sometimes, and reading Pond is almost like taking the first few baby steps towards this new way of being.
For me, it was a joyful read, a link to a kindred spirit, and a series of images painted with words that are lingering happily in my imagination.
I do hope that you are inspired to seek out this book and read it. On a side note, a friend of mine who is very much a fan of plot-driven books and page-turners was the person who recommended this to me as a good read. So even if this is not your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give it a try.
“And then, after lunch, I’d take a blanket up to the top garden and I’d lie down under the trees in the top garden and listen to things.
I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead. I would listen to a spider coming through the grass towards the blanket. I’d listen to a squabbling pair of blue tits seesawing behind me. I’d listen to the wood-pigeon’s wings whack through the middle branches of an ivy-clad beech tree and the starlings on the wires overhead, and the seagulls and swifts much higher still. And each sound was a rung that took me further upwards, and in this way it was possible for me to get up really high, to climb up past the clouds, towards a bird-like exuberance, where there is nothing at all but continuous light and acres of blue.“