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book review

Smart, funny, elliptical debut follows a former grad student set adrift

Shutterstock/Elena Elisseeva

Voice is everything in “Pond,” a first novel that arrives from Ireland accompanied by a sheaf of rhapsodic British reviews. They’re well deserved: Claire-Louise Bennett’s unnamed narrator is smart and funny, wickedly observant of her own and others’s quirks, extraordinarily sensitive to her physical surroundings. The interior of her tiny cottage and the landscape surrounding it are described with the same precision she brings to bear on the workings of her mind — indeed, the intimate connection between her exterior and interior worlds sometimes seems to exclude other human beings. The only thing you won’t get from this slim but demanding book is a straightforward recounting of events. Information is doled out piecemeal and in asides. Attentive readers only need apply.

They will meet a young woman who has relatively recently abandoned her doctoral thesis and moved from a shared house into the cottage, where she can be alone. The “inviability of my academic career eventually acquired a palpability of such insidious force that one day I came out of a shop unwrapping a pack of cigarettes and went nowhere for approximately half an hour,” she tells us. Wry elegance overlaying chaos within is characteristic of our tricky narrator, as is the hilarious contrast she then draws between the obscene e-mails she was exchanging at the time with a lover and “yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme.”

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The narrator’s field of study, she has already hinted, had something to do with love as depicted in Western literature. Or at any rate she gave a speech on that subject at “a very eminent university across the water” (which appears to mean London) back when she was still trying to be a graduate student. When “one of the academic big guns” offered what she considered a condescending criticism of her speech, she tells us, she responded politely while mentally creating a revenge scenario that involved a fall, a cut head, and bleeding for the offender. There will be several other moments in her narrative when fury breaks through her carefully cultivated disengagement.

The narrator has friends. She throws a party at one point, yet she always seems to be standing apart, watching and wondering at the action like a stranger on this earth. Her lengthy, detailed catalogues of such commonplace topics as which breakfast foods go best with coffee tend to veer off in unexpected, faintly menacing directions, as when she comments that, if the morning is too far progressed, “porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive, like a gloomy repast from the underworld.” We’re not entirely sure what she’s driving at, but we sense unhappiness and anger underneath the tart humor.

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Slowly, seemingly isolated incidents and fleeting references accumulate to form a tentative portrait of someone who has survived a painful, impossible love and a family tragedy. Her invocations of nature are both blatant expressions of sexual desire (“I want to see naked trees and hear the earth gasp and settle into a warm and tender mass of radiant darkness”) and poignant statements of yearning to forge more honest human connections. The earth that the narrator keeps telling us she wants to burrow underneath is the substance of her self: “I was far beneath the ground at last,” she says, writing furiously in a notebook as evening falls. “The pen came to settle in the seam of my notebook. Sooner or later, I thought, you’re going to have to speak up.”

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She’s still keeping quiet toward the end of the novel, however, when she doesn’t say anything to the man she’s just spent the night with about “the creature beneath the water” she senses in the river outside his home. Happiness might be a possibility with this man, but he is one of those people who are “ceaselessly finding ways of getting to grips with the world,” and she declines to join their ranks. The narrator is fascinated by the mysteries of life, even if they sometimes frighten and enrage her.

Mysteries aren’t meant to be solved in this elliptical, elusive text, reminiscent of Joyce and Beckett in its unmistakably Irish blend of earthy wit and existential unease. Yet Bennett does much more than emulate literary forebears. “Pond” expresses her unique sensibility in deceptively simple, delightfully unsettling prose. We’ll be hearing more from this formidably gifted young writer.

POND

By Claire-Louise Bennett,

Riverhead, 195 pp., $26


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.