‘I haven’t discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. […] I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.’
This debut collection of twenty short stories offers an unusual, often eccentric and original insight into a nameless narrator’s reclusive lifestyle – a life of solitude that suffers nothing for it. In an age where no-one is ever quite alone as the buzz of an email, the ding of a text or the ring of a phone call continuously draws one away from the present moment, Claire-Louise Bennett’s beautifully poetic and reflective prose offer a strange and unfamiliar quietness. The chaos of modern life is pushed aside, as the reader enters a rustic cottage in Ireland with rugged, wild landscapes and harsh weather.
At first the narrator’s pedantic speech can come across as frustrating, suggesting a superior and slightly self-inflated sense of self, but readers should persevere as her peculiar ways grow on you. Her habits and reflections become endearing as her anonymity almost gives readers a sense of embodying the character themselves, vicariously living her day-to-day routines, thoughts, feelings and movements as she depicts her inner life and relation to the world around her.
An intimacy grows as the narrator’s humanity, cracks and flaws break through the initial layer of hard outer shell, revealing that underneath there are the whimsical, weird and subtle insights that people often experience, yet never truly share with another – the moments usually missed, left unsaid and forgotten. This collection is filled with delicate details of a life that stands still long enough to grasp the music and wonder of the world.
Many often fear the idea of being alone, equating alone to unhappy, lonely and unfulfilled, but the nameless narrator demonstrates the enriching life that can be led in one’s own company, where being unconventional and reclusive is still full of valuable, deep, sometimes unnerving and often quirky moments of self-discovery. In Henry Thoreau’s words, the narrator is brave enough to confront how ‘the mass of men [or in this case women] lead lives of quiet desperation’, and find ways of overcoming the monotony of life, the anxieties of it, as well as the flaws that cannot be changed. She faces herself and depicts a sense of being comfortable in one’s own skin, with all its bumps and blemishes. The narrator reflects on how life is just as much about what does happen as it is about what does not, where daydreams function as a way of enduring the frustrations of life and returning her to her ‘original sense of things’.
There is time, and there is quietness, to simply be. It is difficult to truly express the way in which Bennett encapsulates a feeling of seeing the world through new eyes, and how when life is stripped bare, one can start to recognise the small things again, like the way the rain catches in leaves, or tiny droplets attach themselves to delicate strands of grass ‘appearing, for all the world, like a squandered chandelier dashing headlong down the hillside.’
Bennett articulates the hindrances of life, of language’s incapacity to fully capture the essence of living, as the narrator declares that ‘I haven’t discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. […] I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.’ Thoughts and desires seethe beneath the surface, and like a confidant, the reader accesses this inner world of a mind left to wander.
Comfort seeps through the narrator’s musings, revealing how one can relish one’s own peculiarities, offering an abundance of feelings that go against the grain and reflect the workings of an internal dialogue which has been given the time and freedom to truly consider itself. Whilst life may dictate a certain mode of normalcy, the narrator expresses feelings of disconnect, boredom, restless desire, erratic or unhinged eccentricity and wonderful impulses and thoughts unaligned with what is expected, articulating a far more human essence, in my opinion. The narrator reveals anxieties, moments of self-doubt and considerations on what she thought to know as true about herself and takes the reader through a journey of miniature self-discoveries along with often amusing, unique and bizarre inner dialogues of external happenings.
Bennett does not shy away from revealing the darker side of an individual’s inner thoughts, where the narrator is often led down paths of disturbing desires, considerations and actions, and other times must face elements of herself she wishes she had not realised existed, that are both sad and funny all at once:
‘perhaps the reason why I’d drunk so much for so long was because I enjoyed feeling enthusiastic about men and since that enthusiasm, which I so very much enjoyed, could not be brought about by any other means, I’d no choice but to spend a good part of my time becoming drunk.’
There is a randomness to her musings, ‘a method in the madness,’ with plenty of wit and quirk. The narrator has a stand-off in the dark with cows, an event that is all at once ridiculous and somewhat unsettling:
‘The cows stopped and continued several times over and always in the same rhythm, and even though, as they got nearer, I felt increasingly aberrant, I managed, actually, to defend my position at the gate.’
Strangely enough, Bennett manages to depict a full and engrossing image of a woman who is at once intimately connected to the reader, and an utterly elusive enigma, since the reader learns neither name, age, nor true circumstances of the narrator’s life. In the final story the reader is left with a third person narrative, a past haunting impression of a little girl – the little girl who lives on inside the narrator who even then felt more grounded to the earth and her inner thoughts, than others. There is a strange echo of a life lived that continues on after closing the last page.
About the Publisher:
Fitzcarraldo Editions is an independent publisher specialising in contemporary fiction and long-form essays. Founded in 2014, it focuses on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language. Each book, designed by Ray O’Meara of the Office of Optimism, is published as a paperback original with French flaps, using a custom serif typeface (called Fitzcarraldo).
Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.