Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett: Amorphous, strange, dark, brilliant

A thrilling work about a working-class girl nourishing her personality with books

Claire-Louise Bennett. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Claire-Louise Bennett. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, a collection of surreal vignettes that, for Jia Tolentino, “altered [one’s] state of consciousness like a drug”, appeared in 2015. It’s been a long and longing wait, then, for Checkout 19, a flightily autofictive work in seven sections and amorphous Bennett style. This is a book about reading, about a working-class girl nourishing her personality with books and coming to write with addictive devotion herself, but it has none of the sedateness implied by a book about books. Instead, the style of Pond – a billowing erudition – runs free, taking darker avenues this time.

In A Silly Business, a child remembers taking out six to 12 books from the library, finding too many books a distraction and deciding it’s better to take one: “And of course this aggravated people. Yes. Yes. Yes it did. No end. Is that all you’re taking out, they’d exclaim.” This they – the world, of adults and schoolmates and, later, boyfriends – must be managed or escaped. She secretes Roald Dahl’s Switch Bitch from a dining room cabinet and reads Alan Sillitoe aloud to a mother who is home between shifts in a department store. A teacher she has a crush on finds her stories and asks for more, creating a glittering situation in which first forages into writing are tinged with desire.

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