These summer days are heavy with plot.
Plot—the external forces that exert themselves on a life, causing it to twist and turn—happens at a dizzying if not exhausting pace. Most of us don’t particularly want a lot of plot—sickness, divorce, loss, death—in our lives. Yet it’s the fabric of our stories. Well, most stories.
Pond, the debut collection by Irish writer Claire-Louise Bennett, was first published in Ireland by Stinging Fly Press and picked up by Riverhead Books in the US. It has been heralded by UK critics as “sidestepping the usual conventions of narrative” and finding a “whole new space in the form.” Pond eludes classification. The twenty pieces—the shortest is a couple paragraphs—eschew plot, lengthy dialogue, and the traditional shape of story. What, then, is left? What is this new space in the form?
Pond’s unnamed narrator lives her mostly solitary life on the outskirts of a small Irish coastal village near the River Shannon. Her interior life swells on the page. Associative thinking, reverie, self-reflection, and keen awareness provide pinpricks of tension.
In “The Gloves Are Off,” the roofs of nearby houses are being redone with reeds, and the reeds, the narrator tells us, are great big beautiful round bundles. She guesses that the reeds came from somewhere not too far away, along the River Shannon, most likely.
I liked to think about all the little fishes that had nudged around and prodded at the reeds here and there. And I liked to think about the bigger fish, pike for example, that had occasionally swished past deep down and set them off nervously swaying, for miles and miles and miles perhaps. And the adrenalized coots spun out by the whirlpool of their own incessant rubbernecking and the hotheaded moorhens zigzagging to and fro. And the swans’ flotilla nests resplendent with marbled eggs. And the sly-bones heron in a world of his own. And the skaters and midges and the boatmen and the dragonflies and the snails and the spawn, and who knows what else the susurrant reeds are raided with.
The title of the book is a nod to Thoreau’s Walden Pond. It also points to the author’s intention and design. In “The Big Day,” the narrator comments on her friend’s sign—“Pond”—posted next to a pond. Presumably it is intended to keep children from toppling in. The narrator resents the sign because it intrudes upon the “enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.” The overlay of a literal designation makes the terrain inaccessible. “How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.”
The narrator is here to marvel, to notice things, to become attuned to the world, to let the world press in on her. Plot enters quietly, and in the smallest details, by invitation. A leaf that comes in through the open window and falls into the narrator’s bath is examined and pondered. Moments are slowed and experienced deeply. A friend who lives nearby is looking for the narrator, and the narrator sees the neighbor. “I was quite sure he wouldn’t spot me straightaway and seeing oneself being looked for wrenches the heart oh ever so gently and must be one of my favourite occurrences—”
With the intense depiction of the narrator’s interior comes a distinctive style. The narrator is well-educated, not shying away from Latinate or complex sentences or style techniques, such as ellipses. As a result, many sentences read like stanzas from a poem: “Walks on. Climbs gate, jumps, lands wonky. Heart is huge. The lake captivates a loosening rain cloud.” In one section, coherence disintegrates and we drop deep into almost primal language, reminiscent of Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury. “No, no. None shally shally on that here hill. Ah, but that was idle then and change was not an old hand. No, no. None shilly shilly on that here first rung.”
The most pronounced tension in Pond comes from withholding. Questions are raised and rarely answered. In “Over & Done,” we learn the narrator has a father, who now has small children. But we don’t find out what happened to the mother, or whether the narrator has siblings. She spent three years working on a doctoral thesis, yet we never learn the subject matter or why she left academia and moved to this small village. She gives a lecture at a very eminent university, but we are not given the title of the talk. “I cannot now recall. It had something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love.” More than that, she doesn’t know why she’s thinking about the lecture, which occurred years ago. The reader is left with a vague outline of ruined relationships, a need to be alone, to commune with the natural world—maybe. Because of the gaps, the immense unknowns, the narrator of the story remains in the reader’s mind, restless and haunting.
Pond is a refuge, a sanctuary. It is a space in which to slow down and ponder our existence in the physical world, to attend to our interior lives and perhaps experience reverie, which seems to be rapidly disappearing from our plot-driven world.