Solitude, with its attendant pleasures and anxieties, is central to most of the longer stories in this bewitching debut collection from Claire-Louise Bennett. The stories unfold from the everyday preoccupations and domestic observations that might assault one on a quiet afternoon, to the big questions that keep you awake at night
In ‘Control Knobs’, a concern that the last remaining knob on an ageing gas cooker might be about to break (leaving the narrator with no way of using the appliance) develops into a rumination on how much our fragile existence is predicated on these ‘terrestrial binds’, and how when they fall away we find ourselves on the precipice of an ontological crisis.
The narrator of ‘The Big Day’ becomes enraged when her neighbour places a ‘cautionary notice’ next to a pond in advance of a party, galled by this ‘idiotic overlay’ of a ‘literal designation’ which prevents any passer-by from communing with the place on their own terms. Reassurance comes from an unexpected source: the small, irregular stones interspersed with the larger blocks that make up the wall of her cottage, and the way that they strike a cadence with the dimmer constellations that the eye is drawn to on a clear night; ‘these peering tributaries are amongst the other stones and stars but are not quite of them’. She feels comforted that no one is ‘able to make anything without mirroring the nascent twist of cosmic upheaval’. Sure enough, when she passes the sign one afternoon some time after the party, she finds it covered with slugs, soaked and falling to pieces. She hides the decomposing sign: mystery is restored.
This might sound like a lot of hard work, but Bennett manipulates these weighty ideas as though they are lighter than air. Her chameleon-like voice matches the pattern of progression in the stories: from the domestic to the cosmological. It tends to open out in a breezy vernacular, and then, as the narrator’s thoughts become more abstract, the voice takes on an academic tone. There is an unexpected humour in the way that Bennett skips between these registers, simultaneously elevating the mundane and undercutting pomposity.
It’s time to stop putting out signs, so you can discover Pond on your own terms. I’ll leave you with the following quote from ‘A Little Before Seven’, about love:
From time to time, it has been pointed out to me, with varying degrees of infuriation and despair that I’d do well to cultivate a more conventionally orientated set of needs. Which comes as a bit of a blow, it must be said, because, on occasion, I have gone quite out of my mind with love, and yet, as it turns out, that isn’t quite the same thing.