... enthralling ... if you’ve had your fill of autofiction, thanks — don’t lose interest just yet. If much of the genre can be fairly criticized for its narrowness, Checkout 19 suggests it perhaps hasn’t yet been fully explored. True, Bennett shares a similar biography to that of her narrator, but the life she describes is one blown open by imaginative writing, by the work other writers have fashioned from their own lives, and by the transformative and transportive nature of reading ... Bennett gorgeously conveys the embers from which every story begins.
... a novel that is deliberate in its construction, down to the individual word, and yet aggressively resistant to definition ... Bennett is interested not in the shape of a life but in its substance ... Bennett’s narrators are sensualists, exquisitely attuned to taste and to texture, with appetites they prioritize over their own well-being ... For them, life is found in sensation: long baths, the sharpness of an orange, underlining their books in jewel-toned inks. They have no clear story to relate to us, but in their strangeness, their sense of ritual, their inability to respond precisely as needed, they draw us in ... The prized darkness at the center of the human mind, the place where whatever is really real about us resides, is what Checkout 19 dedicates itself to protecting. There is nowhere to go but inside, and yet what is inside is what must be saved from illumination ... It’s also, of course, a good description of Bennett’s writing, which aims to capture experience without revealing its core.
Sly and strange and deceptively casual ... Bennett’s language is a strange mix of the exact and the commonplace, silted up with pat phrases and linguistic filler ... The language is engaging yet constrained ... It is a thoroughly discombobulating effect, a narrative voice that is both unstable and unified, commonplace and unique, drab and hypnotic. It can feel as if this work of fiction is being disassembled and reassembled as you read it, bent nails left protruding from beautifully polished wood ... In most ways, though, Bennett’s second book is far less oblique than her first. It has a clear subject—the narrator’s relationship to books and writing over the course of her early life—and though it takes plenty of detours, proceeds more or less in chronological order ... The most familiar section—a writer finding her calling amid the confusions of youth...is still far from conventional. It has a shifting, spiraling structure, like someone mulling over memories, but also a momentum and an insistence on the tactile ... Checkout 19 is more approachable, more immediately satisfying, but also more familiar. They do not feel, however, quite like separate books, but like two installments from a longer, ongoing effort.
Look, the narrator says, offering page after page of funny, daring, poignant, accurate, truthful little things that upend the whole lot ... I suppose you might call Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel Checkout 19 a bildungsroman if you cared about that sort of thing, but the more interesting experience is to follow the pointing finger ...The narrator talks and talks, not separating her thoughts into paragraphs, but letting them run on and through and circle back and break off. I wonder if to some this would sound anxious, like rumination, but it’s not quite that, or always that. It’s more like someone trying to be precise and truthful, and teasing herself in the attempt ... It’s not as if you can ever separate form from content, but in a novel about novels it seems especially important that the sentences are pleasurable—and that this pleasure, too, has something to say about how a novel works. There are a few times in Checkout 19 when you are barreling along, laughing, looking at the things the narrator wants you to look at, and you come upon a sentence, a short one perhaps, then realize you’ve come upon something harder, stranger, more mysterious than you expected ... as it proceeds it’s less about reading and learning and more about writing and living ... What’s amazing for the reader is to see a book so alive, so lively, so aware of what it is made of and yet so itself, so itself really that it eludes review, and ought simply to be read.
Pond is so unusual, and so unsettlingly pleasurable, that I thought it would be greedy to hope Bennett's new novel, Checkout 19, would be better. Lucky me: it is ... Bennett is too committed to the oddity and specificity of her again-nameless narrator's ideas to ever fall into the worn grooves of other people's. Indeed, the novel is explicitly committed to the privacy of thought ... Not many people are able to live this way; not many women or working-class characters get written this way. For the rooted among us, reading Checkout 19 can be utterly jarring. It is a portrait, like Pond; it's also a call to come at least a little undone. Yes, really. It really is.
... a profound and very funny book about growth and promise, and how not to kill them off; about women reading and writing and how they survive ... One could, at least at first, mistake Checkout 19 for a story of coming-of-age via literature, a genre so often done badly that it can be hard to recognise when it’s being put to more imaginative uses ... But Bennett’s narrator turns out to be more interested in the shape the story takes than in what anyone is ‘really’ beneath the façade ... And at the edge of it all lies the abyss, twinkling, unplotted, blessedly free of narrative, inviting us in. One of the thrilling things about Checkout 19 is Bennett’s total contempt for the idea that storytelling is a kind of journey, or that it gets you anywhere, that naive and cosy notion that structures the narrative arc of so much contemporary fiction, often—though not only—by women.
Nearly every pivotal moment that the book recounts is delivered this way: There is the thing itself depicted—often filled up with digressions—and then there is an often longer engagement with the way the thing itself now lives in the narrator’s body and her brain, how it has shifted and been altered over time and through the stories that she and others tell ... In many ways, much of this feels well worn in contemporary fiction: an unnamed narrator, hewing to the basic outline of the writer’s own life, focused on consciousness and not much plot. But if Rachel Cusk, as well as Jenny Offill, Kate Zambreno, Miranda Popkey, and Sarah Manguso all write sentences defined by a crisp cleanliness, Bennett’s sentences often feel like flights of fancy: They circle back on themselves, linger in uncertainties and contradictions—they feel like mismatched socks, a layered skirt, an oversize and multicolored cardigan thrown over an ornate silk button-up as opposed to Cusk’s unadorned simplicity. The excitement around Bennett’s books is connected in part to a sense of possibility: If a writer like Cusk confronts the reader with the power of a taut, single consciousness, Bennett is stretching the forms that consciousness can take to include effusion and hesitation, self-indulgence and equivocation. It’s just as brilliant, just as well read, but more willing to grasp for and circle sensations and ideas that don’t ever quite cohere ... Because of Bennett’s ornamented, recursive style, there was a moment about three-quarters of the way through Checkout 19 when I got worried ... It began to feel like provocation: The affect never lets up—was it the book’s fault or mine that I felt the need sometimes to ask it to settle down? ... Throughout Checkout 19 stories function as a catalyst not just for thinking but for acting, choices, lived experiences; it feels thrilling to imagine all the books and stories, the reconsidered ways of being, that might come after this.
At the heart of Claire-Louise Bennett’s new novel Checkout 19 lies a paradox: Grasping the identity of a nameless protagonist. The young woman who does, at one point, occupy a cashier stand 19 at a supermarket, builds her inner life for the reader through hectic and nonlinear streams of consciousness ... go with the odd tunings and odder chords that make up the symphony of Checkout 19 as it portrays one artist’s struggles. Near the end, one of the narrator’s early stories comes to life as she hits rock bottom and once again finds her muse. In that wild, fairytale-esque finale, the writer’s fingers elongate further and further until they turn into frantic threads that whip around the room and catch fire from the proverbial burning candle. I’ll refrain from spoiling the last sentences, except to say that if you’ve been paying attention, they make an eerie sense.Checkout 19 echoes Virginia Woolf, early Toni Morrison novels, Sheila Heti and Han Kang, and so many others in its insistence on women telling their own stories in their own ways.
... a biographia literaria, a syllabus, a warning about the trouble books will get you into ... Precise and significant moments will give way easily to daydreaming fantasy, stories get told and retold differently, so that it seems Bennett (or her fictional stand-in) cannot help writing while she is writing ... Bennett is extraordinarily good at describing the perplex of curiosity and lassitude into which a book may throw a child ... If Checkout 19 did no more than obliquely render one young woman’s literary awakening, it would be a worthy follow-up to the jagged, baroque pleasures of Pond. But Bennett doesn’t so much recount this story as perform it, frame it, subtitle it, and heckle her own performance at the same time ... a rickety sort of masterpiece ... anything but ironic or knowing. Yes, there are recursive moments, and forays into a kind of literary criticism when Bennett gets really carried away about Quin or Forster or Anaïs Nin. And the prose is often sumptuously self-aware...But all of this is so peculiarly pitched, so much a product of the character’s vagrant patterns of thought and fancy, that you come away mostly with an impression of comically heightened sincerity. And a mind genuinely amazed at its own alien inventiveness ... Alongside all its literary preoccupations, Checkout 19 is also a startling meditation on what youth knows and doesn’t know.
Books about books tend toward the sappy. They often make the reductive, moralizing case that reading is a form of salvation, a surefire route to empathy. It is a unique pleasure to read a novel of bibliophilia that eschews this mode entirely ... wildly imaginative, unabashedly odd and mordantly funny ... I prepared to be irked by this swerve into the ultra-weird. But even in its surreality, this foray, like many in the novel, achieves a startling verisimilitude, as Bennett shares not just the story of Superbus but how she arrived at it. 'This is how it feels inside my mind,' I ended up thinking ... It’s not easy to read a book like this, to surf the choppy waters of sometimes disparate associations accumulated over a lifetime, to return to the same pieces of a story (the Russian, for example, reappears) but never arrive at any resolution in the usual sense of the word ... But this is not a novel that purports to offer anything like the usual satisfactions. Each thought opens onto a reference or set of associations drawn from another work. The reader is simply along for the ride ... Fortunately, Bennett is very funny ... For the true-blue reader, this book-full-of-books is a gift and proof of a rare talent. It’s not meant to be plucked from the nightstand and chipped away at over the course of weeks, but a volume to be consumed whole, on one long, strange trip .. To Bennett’s great credit, Checkout 19 doesn’t dramatize the life-saving role of books. Reading here is not embraced as mere escape, nor glorified as edification. Bennett is not selling anything or arguing a point. In the telling of a life lived through books, and in her own sometimes floridly erudite sentences, the deep magic of writing is revealed.
Few things in Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut 'novel' are placed within the reader’s immediate grasp, but this image of tight, spiralling exuberance at least strongly suggests itself as a description of its author’s prose style, a style which, while it flits boldly between voices and tenses, narratives and sub narratives, the postures of essayism and the disclosures of memoir, remains radiantly distinct and always exhilarating to read ... The narrator’s compulsively keen-eyed and neurotic reflections on such formative moments—which mostly involve reading and writing, but also trauma, and sex, and the cryptic power struggles that define certain relationships—form the book’s meandering spine. But what’s most striking about this Künstlerroman (the account of an artist’s growth to maturity) is how uninterested its artist seems to be in interpreting her own experience ... Even her most surreal digressions are laid down with sublime specificity and precision ... So many of Bennett’s lines are worth quoting in full. Because she is, first and foremost, a master of the sentence, directing the foggy, expansive contents of her mind through one breathtaking construction after another.
... the key to Checkout 19 is its principled refusal to entirely wise up ... The language is showy in the precocious way of young writers who take profound pleasure in deploying fancy words ... This grows self-indulgent, of course. Mimicking juvenilia yields both freshness and triviality. But book lovers will identify enough not to mind Ms. Bennett’s stubborn naiveté, especially when it brings about jubilant passages[.]
Bennett’s work is...sly and strange and deceptively casual. As it reveals itself, the mass of quotation begins to seem less like a weighty clearing of the throat, and more like padding for something new and vulnerable, or a gate enclosing something wild ... It’s not that she is doing so many disparate things, but that what she is doing is so elusive, and many pins are needed to get the specimen onto the board ... In another book...violence would be the most memorable element, the center around which the whole thing turns. But Bennett manages to incorporate it, without ever minimizing it, into her larger project. Like many contemporary writers, Bennett has expressed an impatience with the traditional forms of fiction and drama, the settled shapes and 'psychological realism' we inherited from the nineteenth century. In Checkout 19, she attempts to find a shape that matches the experience of memory ... And so the book spins out fantasies and lists, lingers on its own hesitations and the sensory moments that surround the story, even as it does, in the end, tell that story as well ... Checkout 19 is more approachable, more immediately satisfying, but also more familiar [than Bennett's previous book] ... Bennett is trying out a new method of depicting consciousness, one that is less definitive than the usual fictional mode, and as attentive to what can’t be known as to what can: the mind not as settled fact or smoothly flowing stream, but as a hastily improvised construction, sliding and skittering, made of nonsense as much as thoughts and feelings.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s second novel...enacts a quest for quiddity—the syntax that embodies a cast of mind, the phrase that nails a sensation, the narrative structure that feels like life as it is lived or anyway processed. At times the effect is exhausting. Bennett’s unnamed, 40-ish narrator, raised in south-west England but resident in Ireland, holds forth in fevered, looping, breathless prose, and displays a tendency to travel long and far down the blindest of alleys. She can be arch and even twee. But whatever challenges the book poses to breezy reading are the product of unswerving fidelity to its own raw spirit ... An immersion in literature serves to inspire in a larger sense, to inflame a feeling of wonder and possibility—a dynamic not only evoked but also achieved by this elatingly risky and irreducible book.
A portrait of fidgety, defiant eclecticism, this is a book that refuses to abide by conventional expectations of storytelling, shifting from the first to the second to the third person as it loosely chronicles its heroine’s journey from school (anyone who made it through an ex-secondary modern some 25 years ago will relate acutely) to university and beyond ... Rambling, sparsely punctuated sentences often repeat themselves and its conversational style – 'that’s right', the narrator likes to reassure herself – contrasts with a satisfyingly recondite vocabulary, running to words such as ouroboros and autotelic. Along the way, stellar comic riffs on the horrors of a shared packet of crisps illustrate how popularity in the playground (and in general) is nothing but a trap and fantasies about rocking up to the Lancôme counter with a scrap of period-stained loo roll and asking the sales assistant to colour-match a lipstick nod to gross-out feminism ... While Checkout 19 may frustrate the reader’s desire for basic details about its protagonist’s background (like Bennett, she grows up in south-west England then moves to Ireland, while we learn of a sibling only near the very end), it luxuriates in long passages of lit crit. Has a novel ever squeezed on to its pages the titles of so many other books? ... What emerges, all the more affectingly for being so serpentine, is an invigorating portrait of the artist as a young – and then older, surer – woman ... Turn the final page of this most uncompromising of works and you’ll be filled with admiration for the way in which its freewheeling momentum turns out to have been so sinuously choreographed, its every mystery, commonplace and apparently defunct deviation mesmerically apposite.
Bennett supplies her readers with a charming, intellectually acrobatic shepherd, but one who holds herself ever so slightly in abeyance, resisting the full thrust of her emotions ... To be sure, Bennett is evoking a well-established mode of thinking about the practice of reading. But intellectual precedent renders Checkout 19 no less remarkable, and no less seductive in its lush collapse of the life of the mind and of the body. To read, to imagine, to write: These are neither departures from life, nor refuges from it, nor are they vehicles of transcendence. They are something more basic, Bennett suggests: They are life itself ... The narrator’s intermittent dips into body talk cohere elegantly with the text’s broader form ... It’s a dizzying yet mesmeric effect Bennett has wrought: to conceal nearly everything about her narrator, except for her desires, her impulses, her ambivalence ... a document of memory, wayfaring and cyclical. Content and craft align in this regard as well, like lyrics set to melody. Bennett’s prose is sensorial, and it swoops and roams in the lithe, playful manner that has come to distinguish her style. Keeping pace with a sentence can lift the stomach, like the gentlest carnival ride (again, reading is a thing the body does). When the text shifts into excerpts of the narrator’s own fiction—about an aristocratic dandy named Tarquin Superbus—it becomes gymnastic in its alliterative free association; sentences seem to turn pirouettes.
... books that the bored reader finds small and dull — is this fiction, or a guide to interior decorating? — but that the patient reader appreciates precisely because it can’t be so neatly described. It is neither a small project nor a big one, but rather a reckoning with the very question of scale. What, really, is the size of a story? Of a life? How much is there to be gained in capturing the big picture — and what is there to lose? ... Bennett’s brilliance is that the exchange of pickles and paperbacks between strangers can indeed be made into a story, one that is told twice: first in a sober, straightforward style, and then again in a scrambled, surrealist form — a breakdown in narrative coherence that captures both what is unsettling about the man and what is unreliable about the narrator.
... masterful ... a working-class novel with an English setting and a sweep of sensibility and prose inspired by a larger swatch of the so-called British Isles. Like one giant, illuminating digression, Checkout 19 pretends to contemplate novels and writing but actually teaches us about people ... Bennett demonstrates how literature provides many kinds of mobility. It leads the narrator out of a class-bound childhood in which the 'future was mapped out … on the smallest scrap of paper.' Simultaneously, by casting images like gemstones in streams of prose, Bennett shows how books are portals through which Very Serious Adults inhabit their lust, gender, atavism, silliness, humor, and yearning for freedom ... This great work draws us out of our solitude and makes us commune with it at the same time.
Although its cover assures us it’s something decidedly normal and comprehensible—a 'novel'—Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19 eludes definition. Wild, refreshing, and delightful, this much-anticipated collection of vignettes is the disorienting but worthy successor to Bennett’s stunning debut and surprise hit Pond ... Reading Checkout 19 feels not so much like listening to someone recollect stories from her life as watching her reminisce from within her own brain ... Bennett’s greatest talent is her precise prose ... Checkout 19 is more audacious, and for that reason less relatable, than the already delightfully obsessive and inward-looking Pond. As with her first book, Bennett captures with astonishing clarity the beautiful, Woolfian minutiae of subjectivity that so often escape notice, and which were such a delight to behold in Bennett’s first novel. But if Pond seemed prone to navel-gazing, Checkout 19 whisks the bewildered reader into the narrator’s flights of imaginative fancy without apology ... Extraordinary.
... as much a rallying cry, a treatise on the validity of a working-class avant-garde, as it is a portrayal of the artist as a young woman ... Frequently, Bennett declines to use commas to demarcate clauses, lending a breathless quality to her paragraphs—a far cry from the staccato beep-beep-beep of a supermarket’s scanner. When juxtaposed alongside her character’s life at the supermarket checkout counter, there is a sense of escapism—a flight into fiction in its truest sense.
This is one of the most extraordinary books it has been my privilege to review ... tolling repetitions have shades of Beckett, and they do, in a very elegant fashion, mean the reader gives a slightly different timbre to the refrain. It is as if the same words can not mean the same thing ... tonally diverse ... It may seem to sprawl and digress but is phenomenally engineered. If I were a Booker judge again, I would move heaven and earth to get this on the shortlist.
Bennett’s latest work distinguishes itself with a peculiar attention to language and detail that is both whimsical and punctilious, colloquial and coy. Tracing the life of a writer from her first encounters with books, Checkout 19 is bursting with anecdote. It is a book telling stories about telling stories—those remembered, retold, written down, and made up—where the line between what’s imagined, what’s happened, why it matters and what matters anyhow is continually teased and obscured ... What occupies most of the book is detail, stringent in its refusal to reveal more than the fact of itself, and extravagant in its profusion and eccentricity ... Throughout, one feels the narrator is creating her stories out of midair and then immediately and insistently convincing herself and the reader of their veracity, sometimes by the expansion of their image and then sometimes by an emphasis on the embarrassing persistence of little words ... Both stories and memories alike take on a hypothetical air, and the reader is often jarred when reminded of their past-ness; that they have either or both happened before and been told already—sometimes even within Checkout 19 itself ... Description is both relished and ironized by the question of its usefulness (to what? Narrative?) ... One a little less dizzily absorbed by the literary world could suppose a book about books a little haughty and insular. Bennett’s ultimate design, though, is not to be read so earnestly. What turns Checkout 19’s screw is the acute self-awareness of how things are said, that everything said is a commentary on how it’s said and not for the proposition that it is somehow right or wrong.
The unnamed woman recounts and ruminates on her life through memories, books read or not read, and stories written or half-written ... Bennett moves between 'we', 'I' and 'she'. The shifts feel natural, like changing gears, and it accentuates how memories sit on different levels of intensity or verisimilitude ... Her paragraphs, which can run for pages, are reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard: endless, block structures that skilfully propel themselves onwards. In digression, she controls the reader like Javier Marías, pulling them away, then swinging back ... Sometimes, I worried. The pace slows. Can she pull off the trick? But then she does ... Checkout 19 inches close to what it is to live ... The novel is defiantly told through impulse—the impulse to write a certain character, to read a particular book, to say something or stay quiet—and in this way, a woman, and a writer, emerges.
Some of the wilful reader-unfriendliness is irritating ... Yet the book can be surprisingly exhilarating, packing both an intellectual and emotional punch ... The disorientating strangeness here seems less like a literary device than an accurate reflection of the disorientating strangeness of the narrator's adolescence ... Checkout 19 offers plenty to relish: fizzing sentences, set pieces that are funny, alarming or both; a convincingly fractured portrait of a convincingly fractured narrator. Yet, by observing the conventions of the unconventional novel a little too closely, it inadvertently confirms how well established, even overfamiliar, many of them now are.
Books, the reading of them and the burgeoning desire to write them, is the thread running through this eclectic, engrossing and frequently funny coming-of-age – or, as Bennett would have it, coming-to-life – story, holding it all together like the wire lattice of a trolley ... Much like her appetite for books, Checkout 19 is voracious and seemingly unstoppable ... One of the book's most peculiar and entertaining characteristics – a feature which makes it more tempting to call it a novel – is Bennett’s retelling of some of her earlier material.
Checkout 19 is a stunningly crafted work...invariably perceptive and frequently very funny, which makes parts of it (particularly a scene of sexual assault near the end) especially shocking. In some ways, the book reads like a collection of short fiction, given that each chapter is written in a slightly different style and has a pleasingly cohesive focus and structure ... In one of the novel’s most striking sections, the narrator—having imagined a whole life story for the Russian man she observes doing his grocery shopping while she sits, bored, at her cashier’s station—is handed a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil by that same customer ... this is just one of those novels you have to read for yourself.
... a tremendous document about the richness of inner life ... For a book where not much happens, there is plenty in here for future PhD students to get their striving, anxious hands all over. Bennett is a marvellous writer, and it is rare to feel the sensations of another mind as vividly as in this radiant novel.
... the voice is precise, luxuriant and absurd ... Bennett cuts through melancholy with hilarity frequently ... Bennett is capable of breathtakingly beautiful description...and of eccentricity ... Pond was a brief, unique and chic work by a gifted prose stylist; Checkout 19, which delves deeper and more courageously into similar themes (books, sex, isolation and female independence) confirms Bennett’s ingenuity. Thrilling, rich and strange.
Bennett writes many long and very dense paragraphs. Pages go by with no indents. Some of these passages - stream of consciousness, in parts - force one to slow down considerably, with unpunctuated sentences, phrases joined by ideas and white space alone. The technique works ... Checkout 19 could be written off as another difficult literary novel, with allusions and assumed knowledge required of hundreds of novels which preceded it. But it is also a tightly coiled spring of a story, with more life packed into these pages than some books twice the length. The narrator, who remains partly unknowable without so much as a name, is varied and considered. This isn't some contrived story but the outline of a life unfurling.
Readers will be transported by Bennett’s exquisite prose, stitch by stitch—which is why the darker elements, when the needle slips, prick so hard. The twist in the Tarquin tale is devastating. It isn’t about Superbus himself, but rather an example of egregious silencing experienced by the narrator at the hands of a boyfriend ... Checkout 19 is utterly original, fashioned from the many narratives (books read, stories written, ideologies debunked) that have shaped a female working-class writer’s distinctive sensibility. Interestingly, the narrator, like Bennett, has managed to escape accent tyranny by emigrating to Ireland, where, for the past twenty years, she has been able to nurture, unstifled, her unique voice, and has even been provided with a room of her own ... One shudders to think that this British writer, among the most gifted to emerge in a generation, might in other circumstances have seen her own pounding promise unfulfilled.
Beautiful prose aside, this book is challenging, discombobulating and downright confounding. We often seek to pigeonhole, to neatly describe books, but Checkout 19 won’t allow that. It has no narrative arc, no plot structure to speak of, and yet it is very absorbing. The narrator’s thoughts jump and repeat and yet we stay with her throughout. This is a refreshingly authentic mind map of a life in writing. Not one for those who want a clear and entertaining storyline, but intriguing nonetheless.
Written with a rich and ruminative humour, Checkout 19 shares similar experimental stream-of-consciousness narration with Rebecca Watson’s Little Scratch. It joins the legion of 'unnamed female narrator' fiction—which counts Rachel Cusk, Amina Cain and Jo Hamya among its ranks—but is also a potent and enraptured counter to the poised and detached tone of much of the genre ... Checkout 19 masterfully captures the delicateness of relationships ... Bennett swaps the first person for a chorus-like plural to bring the novel to a symphonic close. This is a book that is meant to be read backwards as much as forwards—turning back the pages, fishing for jewels missed the first time around.
Bennett’s kaleidoscopically imaginative, word-enthralled, working-class English narrator reenters the consciousness of her younger selves and tracks how books, reading, and writing shaped each phase of her life, with her syntax, vocabulary, and tone evolving as she matures ...Incandescent, surreal, mordantly funny, wrenching, and exhilarating, Bennett’s enrapturing paean to literature echoes Jorge Luis Borges, Clarice Lispector, Lynne Tillman, and Lucy Ellmann, pays direct homage to myriad writers, traces the nexus of literature and life, and maps a book-besotted woman’s search for meaning.
... a dizzying story at once elliptical, associative, sensuous, and jarring, she summons the elusive symbiosis between lived and imagined experience. Memories of people and events are rooted in the senses, where otherwise dissimilar tastes and smells—marmalade and cigarettes, cucumbers and elastic bands—infuse texture and tangibility into sequences of events and personal habits and traits. Or is it the other way around? The voice offers a brilliant metaphor for her own story when she describes the iris of a rival’s eye as an ouroboros; the serpent eternally swallowing its tail complicates the distinction between beginnings and endings as the voice’s eye blurs and refocuses the connections among reading, writing, and living ... Bennett follows her celebrated debut, Pond, with a stunning demonstration of reading as creation.
... idiosyncratic and arresting ... Encompassing literary criticism, suggestive fables, feminist polemic, a portrait of the artist, and a phenomenology of reading, this transfixes on both the right page and the left. Bennett marvels once again.
What Bennett seems after in her shape-shifting novel is less about books—though there are plenty of those, from Annie Ernaux and Roald Dahl to Sylvia Plath and Ann Quin—and more broadly about the true power of the imagination and the lives it enables us to live when our own seem painfully circumscribed by gender, by place, by circumstance ... A kaleidoscopic and ambitious blend of criticism, autofiction, fable, and memoir.