Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut collection of stories, Pond, published in 2015, announced the arrival of a striking new voice. First published by the Stinging Fly in Ireland, Pond was later picked up by Fitzcarraldo Editions and by Riverhead, both with reputations for publishing literary work of exceptional quality. Bennett was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2016 and lauded by writers like Deborah Levy, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Eimear McBride. Six years later, she has returned with her debut novel, Checkout 19, an extraordinary affirmation of her writing talent. But there was a point when she wasn’t sure whether she would write another book at all.
“I’ve been writing the last six, seven, eight years, but badly, pretty badly, as far as I’m concerned.” Lockdown liberated something in her writing. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that something really kicked in during that period of time,” she says in her gentle west English accent over coffee and scones in her adopted home town of Galway, where she has lived for 20 years. She is dressed in a vibrant, multicoloured blouse, buttoned to the throat, a large red necklace resting on top of it, her dark hair pulled back neatly from her face. The effect is an unusual impression of simultaneous austerity and festivity, a little like Bennett’s writing itself, which seems to blend a clean modernist style with a luxurious ornateness.
Checkout 19 tells the story of one woman’s journey to becoming a writer, revisiting defining moments in her life, from early romantic fantasies to the kind of books that influenced her to traumatic experiences and the struggle for her own personal freedom in the world. It is a political commentary on girlhood, womanhood and writing and how these experiences intersect with class, money, freedom and patriarchy, but it also manages to be deeply moving and utterly absorbing at the same time.
The novel will appeal to readers of Ingeborg Bachmann, Annie Ernaux and Tove Ditlevson and it is described as “a fusion of fantasy and lived experience”. Where does non-fiction begin and fiction end? She samples a bit of jam and appears to ponder, or possibly ignore, the question before finally answering, “I don’t actually want to say too much about that because it interferes with how people engage with the book. They just start reading it differently I think.”
There are some devastating scenes in the novel, among them a rape, a suicide, and another affecting scene where a boyfriend destroys the unnamed narrator’s work in progress.
“That really happened,” she says, referring to the destruction of the story. “It’s peculiar. They [some men] just feel threatened, like you’re being unfaithful or something almost. They get really jealous because I think they realise just how much of yourself you put into this thing, into your work, your writing. Perhaps they see it as taking from them, you know, and they feel just insanely jealous about it.”
In the rape scene, the protagonist moves on quickly, getting on with her life and her job. “What’s interesting about it is there is the scene which seemed to be the most dreadful violation and yet somehow her emotional response to it is a bit uncomfortable, a bit wobbly and very quickly she just gets on with the next day and going back home and working in the supermarket. It is interesting, throughout my life, my own emotional responses to things have often been quite unexpected. Small things just completely devastated me and I was interested in that and that’s explored throughout the book.”
Class is a defining theme in the book and Bennett grew up in a working-class family in Wiltshire and that had its own influence on her path to becoming a published writer. “What you’re doing is sort of an untried path in your family and background. There’s not much value placed upon that activity, no one can see how that will give you any financial security. And they’re right because what are the chances really, even when you’re so-called successful? The stuff I was writing wasn’t very cohesive. It wasn’t poetry but it was a bit like poetry. I was dismissive of it. Because of my background, the idea that I might have been writing poetry just wouldn’t have entered my head. Now somebody else might have picked up on that and developed it.”
Her writing style is unusual – Checkout 19 is as compelling as a page-turner and as thought-provoking as a philosophical treatise – and perhaps some of that comes from the time she spent working in theatre. “For me at the core of theatre and theatre history is a philosophy of the self and I’m very interested in how selfhood is represented. I was not so much interested in creating a sense of character but a sense of presence so you don’t know very much about this character in Checkout 19, you’re not really given the details, age, physical characteristics, but at the same time there is a sense of presence and theatre helped me with that.”
Wealth and inequality
As a young woman, Bennett was determined not to fulfil the expectations that had been placed upon her. “I didn’t want to stay in that working-class world. I didn’t want to leave school and get a job and get married. I really didn’t want to do that. It just made me feel claustrophobic thinking about that. So I thought, I’ll just knuckle down, that will get me out of this.”
She went to London and studied literature and drama at the University of Roehampton but was soon disillusioned. “It was the first time I really saw proper wealth and I saw inequality and I started to feel that most people were being fobbed off, taken for a bit of a ride and being sold a bit of a lie really: oh you just have to work hard and all the rest of it, what a crock of shit that is.”
When she finished her degree, she returned to her hometown. “It was grim and full of work, work I didn’t want to do, really crap jobs, boring, boring office jobs, which I just couldn’t stand for so many reasons. You’re around people all the time, and I used to try and get in really, really early in the mornings and work through my lunch break so I could get out of there at 2 o’clock but I was told I couldn’t do that any more – you’ve got to have a lunch break like everybody else. Well I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing.”
A desire for freedom sings from the pages of the book, in both small, everyday ways and larger, existential moments. “That’s one of the ironic things about having done it during lockdown because I did feel in many senses just very free during that time. There was nowhere else I could be, nothing else I could be doing.”
Freedom and privacy go hand in hand for her and she is not on social media anymore. “I think people give up their privacy way too easily. I just think being able to switch off on things and to just sort of not feel that need to tell anybody what you’re doing all the time . . . I’d hate to live like that. It must be really strange to feel that once you’ve had an experience it has to be documented straight away and once you’ve put it up it has to be reacted to. You’re not free if you’re doing that.”
She tries to resist the urge to make unthinking, automatic decisions based on expectations, whether it’s having a Twitter account or getting married or having children. “It’s very easy to get sucked into stuff. In the reality we live in, that’s shown to be the only possible reality, the only way of life, but that’s not true. It’s just an ideology. That’s all it is.”
She says completing Checkout 19 opened up something for her and she is already working on something new. “I just feel a bit happier in myself. For a long time I wasn’t. Maybe it’s just making little decisions, just stopping doing things that make me feel anxious, just minimising those things and really staying close to what I know makes me feel good.”
Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett is published by Jonathan Cape