Wry dispatches from a west coast state of mind

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Claire-Louise Bennett
The Stinging Fly Press; €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

An unnamed woman lives on the edge of a coastal village in the west of Ireland. She reads books about the “gruelling practical exigencies occasioned by confinement”, cultivates “low maintenance crops”, and only rarely experiences “any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk”.

Thus uproarious, digressive, and predicated on a subjective accentuation of meaningless detail, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut volume succeeds where other contemporary depictions of rural life collapse beneath the weight of their own self-conscious seriousness. It is a work which exists as both a short story collection and as a novel, surely even as a memoir of sorts, a narrative linked by the voice of a narrator for whom the unravelling of “minor foibles is a relevant pursuit”.

Embracing formal experimentation in this fashion grants the volume an usual energy and, though any work pushing fiction in this manner is in danger of confounding reader expectations, Bennett finds balance here in a pleasing back-and-forth between shorter pieces capturing moments of personal significance and longer offerings – stories or chapters as the reader prefers – which yoke the often abstract artistic ambitions of stream-of-consciousness writing to the more mundane trepidations of everyday life.

Her narrator sees the world through “thoroughly square” windows and has an “innate weakness for shabby clothes”. Men and cattle drift through her life, yes, but Bennett’s focus never leaves this woman who is curious in all sense of the word. She displays a “level of intuition” of which it “is impossible for anyone to make anything without mirroring the nascent twists of cosmic upheaval” and, in that way it must be said, is often “highfalutin”. Indeed, the narrator is the type of character who uses “highfalutin” with nonchalance and a total lack of irony.

Her resulting wordiness borders on overt parody of the artistic-temperament, yet Bennett imbues Pond’s narrator with just enough self-reflection to undercut any charge of true pretentiousness. And when she fails to do so – one suspects deliberately – the side-splitting results veer from meditations on the “stigma” of writing in green ink to quasi-Beckettian asides on rural living such as “I am used to vehicles coming up this way. That is something I am used to. And sometimes – though less often – they go down the way, and I’m used to that too”.

This is to say that Pond is a very funny book. It is also one which benefits from being read – and for that matter reread – aloud, perhaps to family or friends, perhaps alone. Only in that way is the slow building avalanche of Bennett’s weird hilarity truly apparent. From a delightful early description of bananas and oatcakes to a letter to a South African company requesting replacement nobs for an “obsolete mini-cooker”, the volume’s defining characteristic is a tendency to ramble which is both ridiculous and ridiculously profound.

Like the bird which falls down its narrator’s chimney, Pond is “a small sharp thing”. The book is “something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventurous souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation”. But, at the same time, Bennett consistently roots these desires in her narrator’s shyness and her cockeyed way of looking at the world. It lends the heroine of this highly recommended volume all the tremendous authenticity of a “mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out”.


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