Pond - Claire-Louise Bennett

6 of 17
208 pages; Riverhead Books

In her exquisitely written and daring debut work of fiction, Pond, British writer Claire-Louise Bennett delves deep into the consciousness of an acutely intelligent yet starkly isolated woman. The novel's nameless protagonist and narrator is an academic turned recluse in a coastal town in western Ireland. The spareness of her daily life allows us the delight of watching her sharp mind at work in finely etched prose.

To avoid dwelling on herself, she focuses on the landscape around her, bringing its objects into numinous close-up: pears organized nose to tail in bowls, green-stalked bananas, the shimmer of inchoate sunsets. "I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead," she says of a typical evening activity. At times she evokes her world with such humorous, off-kilter granularity that the reader wonders whether there's not something a little unhealthy in her hyperattentiveness: "I go on with my guillotining and methodically pare down this robust gathering of swanky solanums until they lose colour," she says, describing the act of chopping vegetables.

She would never confess to being a touch high-strung, though. In fact, what we learn of her is through omission. For example, although she never discloses her feelings toward a boyfriend, we nevertheless have a vivid sense of their relationship when she's next to him in bed and her thoughts drift—with "such yearning!"—to visions of broad beans and spinach. Pond's lovely strangeness lies in just how intimate we feel with our heroine despite knowing so little about her. By eschewing exposition, Bennett's novel demonstrates the elucidating power of simply recording a consciousness at work, a state of being—a "mind in motion."

— Alice Whitwham