Pond is one of those books I read 20 pages of and then had to stop myself from immediately trying to write something just like it. The voice, circuitous and vivid, sticks in your head.
The book is Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut, and while it seems to be categorized as a short story collection, it also reminds me of some poetic novels; there’s one narrator and one central place, anchoring several stories or chapters comprised mostly of stream-of-consciousness observations, often with some inciting event but rarely with any strong external drama or tension. Bennett doesn’t follow any rules of storytelling: there isn’t an overarching plot, nor a real plot to any of the stories, nor any major shift except digging deeper, perhaps, into the narrator’s psychology, and a small sense that change will happen, inevitably and with little agency, towards the end of the book. Stories centre around things as minute as trying to replace oven knobs, or the colour of ink in a fountain pen. Characters are rarely named and there are no consistent or particularly significant character relationships, nor much direct dialogue; the broadest sense of the narrator’s life comes from a phone conversation with her father in one of the last stories, “Over and Done With,” and the suggestion of history and something ongoing is almost jarring in a book so firmly rooted in present thought & sensation.
I’m a sucker for stories without much story, mostly because it justifies me writing things that are about image and language and states of being but not plot. After all, life rarely has much of a plot anyway, and these minutia of everyday life carry a real honest weight if we let them.
The early part of the book alternates between longer stories and short vignettes (including a two-paragraph ode to tomato puree), but in the later third of the book there are more and more long stories and the weight of it all shifts in proportion. What begins as reasonably light-hearted eccentricity takes on a slightly more melancholy cast; the balance of the narration shifts from outward descriptions to a closer sense of the narrator herself, her psyche and the drifting patterns she’s caught up in, the tenuous ways she forms identity. This tension between internal and external reality seems central to the book, and as it goes on you get a sense of the person emerging from the voice; you move from a sense of timeless oddity to a clearer picture of a life.
It’s a book about food & love & dirt; about solitude and anxiety, but in no clichéd or all-consuming sense. With a narrator indifferent to anyone else’s rules, Bennett moves between every kind of odd and uncomfortable and irreverent truth about day-to-day life. It’s a book I’d like to read at least three more times — each story is full of turns of phrase worth chewing on, flavours and textures worth examining from every angle, and observations that haunt you until you can tease them apart.