Robed women lean back, eyes closed, arms folded, long hair streaming into holes that puncture grassy ground below. Each seems content in her solipsism, connected to her counterparts only through the bond that they share with the soil. This image, Alice Maher’s The Orchard of our Mothers, acts as a pictorial prologue for Pond, the debut collection of short stories by Ireland-based writer Claire-Louise Bennett. Along with a trio of assorted epigraphs – courtesy of Nietzsche, Natalia Ginzburg, and Gaston Bachelard – the artwork introduces some of the recurrent literary themes: nature, isolation, comfort.
Like Maher’s mothers, the unnamed protagonist of Pond feels the decisive pull of the rural. She has traded life in the city, we learn, for “the most Westerly point of Europe”, on – as the blurb concisely puts it – the “cusp of a coastal town”. This is a secluded world in which an apartment may become a burrow, in which decisions are made with careful consideration. The woman tells us that her writing is categorised by her choice of fountain pen: steely blue black for “bureaucratic downers”, green “perhaps for more clandestine dealings”. No household object goes unnoticed; each may act as the tributary from which the next thoughts flow.
In her stream-of-consciousness prose, Bennett picks apart the quotidian with sumptuous specificity. An early story, ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, ponders how best to enjoy a banana with a morning coffee. (The secret is a fruit bowl placed on a cool windowsill, “no wooden overlay, just the plastered stone, nice and chilly”.) The daily routine congeals around porridge: once a neighbour is overheard or a towel folded, a bowl of oatmeal feels immediately “vertical and oppressive”. Metaphors freewheel in this manner throughout: almonds are “fingernails that have come away from a hand which has just seen the light of day”. Coloured straws look like “exhausted flumes” in kids’ water parks, “in landlocked European countries especially”.
Violence and sex occasionally break through the commonplace, bold streaks struck across the pale paper. The narrator wishes to sear a cat’s “foul backside in an explosion of oil”, and to see a condescending scholar smack his head on a sharp desk corner. Inexplicable disdain is considered a source of immense arousal, and explicit email exchanges make for a welcome creative break from the monotony of academic abstracts. More effective still are the passages in which the aggressive and the raunchy subside, returning to the security of routines once more. Spanish oranges are recommended as a post-coital snack; they “cut through the fug and smell very organised, and so a sort of structure resumes”.
The stories that comprise Pond range from twenty pages to two sentences, with the shortest pieces homing in on a single idea or action: a visit from the ratcatcher; a stir-fry made to be discarded; an ode to tomato purée, in all its “kitsch and concentrated splendour”. Some dip into third-person, albeit with most or all of the pronouns removed: “Thinks of twilight, privet hedges and a bookcase falling forward”. Rarely are we gifted forenames. There are brief references to a Mary and a Miriam, but the latter acts primarily as an explanation as to why few other names are present here. It is impossible, we are told, to separate fictional characters from real-life namesakes we know; no matter “how many times her ear lobes are referred to as dainty and girlish in the reader’s mind Miriam’s ear lobes are forever florid and pendulous”.
Pond’s esoteric memories and musings may not mollycoddle readers, but nor do they seek to intimidate. Bennett empathises with our struggle to understand. She watches as we subject sentences to scrutiny, trying to prise them apart to get at the meanings within. Many times, it is hinted that there is little beyond the words on the page. A Japanese tapestry is intentionally left unfinished. The pond that gives the collection its title has “absolutely no depth whatsoever”. In ‘Lady of the House’, it is asserted that the repeated visual motif of a monster is not a metaphor, even though the story’s close invites speculation: “I can’t be at all sure where it is I’d be without it.”
Instead, we are encouraged to fill in any blanks ourselves, to add our own monsters. About halfway through the book, Bennett’s nameless protagonist confides in us while discussing fiction: “I have the horrible encroaching sensation that I’m getting everything all wrong or that I’m absolutely oblivious to something fairly accessible and very profound.” The confession serves as a reassurance that we should not suffer searching for a singular truth, and this liberation lends the dense text a newfound sense of spaciousness. Our responses to the exquisite evocations of Bennett’s world, we may come to realise, act as the groundwork upon which Pond rests. Like the figures in Maher’s drawing, we as readers are all piped into the same vast wellspring of ideas, but are each engrossed by our own introspective interpretation.
‘Pond’ is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Earlier versions of this article are available at The Draft Man’s Contract.