The refusal to name the narrator is a conscious choice that Bennett draws attention to within the collection itself:
Names in books are nearly always names from real life and so already the reader is bound to have some knowledge about a person with a particular name such as Miriam and even if that reader’s mind is robust and adaptable some little thing about Miriam in real life will infiltrate Miriam in the book so that it doesn’t matter how many times her ear lobes are referred to as dainty and girlish in the reader’s mind Miriam’s earlobes are forever florid and pendulous.
In avoiding at least this one level of reader preconception, the main character of Pond is allowed a greater capacity to stand on her own narration.
Alongside her refusal to name her main character, Bennett hits out at the limits of naming through an assault on literal language:
I would be disgusted to the point of vengeance if I was brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it.
There is a strong sense that naming something so bluntly shuts down more individualised interpretive possibilities.
In raising this point, it is interesting to note that the phrases, “in fact”, “actually” and “as a matter of fact” are peppered throughout the unnamed woman’s narration, calling further attention to the compulsion to define and literalise that the woman’s more conscious musings seek to overcome. These phrases are almost like tics, unthinkingly nestled among the very individualistic, and personal narration which throws them into such relief.
The book itself is written in a mock heroic and rather expansive style, with elevated language describing the mundane and the trivial:
two tapered slices of the purest cheese I’d eat forthwith and this would briefly alleviate me of all other pressing duties so I would gaze awhile out the windowpane and I would not deign to get involved in anything, not one single blessed thing out there.
This little passage leads on to one of my favourite little phrases in the book, the idea of being “cheese appeased”, which I think is rather lovely.
As should be clear from the small excerpts quoted here, this book is wonderfully written, and focusses in on the ordinary and the everyday in a way that asks you to see these things through new eyes. Bennett’s writing rallies against lazily accepting the tired and the habitualised, and turns clichés on their head, saying of a Portaloo: “I hadn’t seen it coming, that’s to say I wasn’t here when it was delivered.” This humour dances around the corners of every one of the stories or chapters; there is a kind of joy in language and a revivifying of language and modes of expression that is very refreshing.
In terms of the stories or chapters themselves, which I am inclined to call fragments, the events being narrated are things as simple as tracking down a control knob for an old electric oven, taking an afternoon walk and passing a man along the way, and not going to an event hosted by her landlady. While on the surface these things might seem very insignificant, the narrator uses every small detail to expand on much larger questions; in the story about the control knobs lurks the fear of death and of running out of time, in the afternoon walk are ideas about desire and femininity, and in the missed event are themes of place and history, and their connections to the individual.
What Claire-Louise Bennett does in these stories is to find the universal in the everyday. That this is done with humour, tenderness, and a quietly compelling narrative voice, makes her book as highly readable as it is thought-provoking.