Early on in Claire-Louise Bennett’s keenly awaited novel, its unnamed narrator recalls childhood visits to her grandmother’s home. When it was time to leave, the elderly woman, whose much-loved signature bake was fruit cake tasting of marmalade and cigarettes, would “dally up and down the hallway”, pressing upon her a joyously random collection of mementoes, from air fresheners to iced buns and candlesticks. “Her flat was a trove of disparate objects, some mysterious, some commonplace, some utterly defunct,” it’s noted with admiration, never mind that most other family members believe a good clear-out would be in order.
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? Reading is essential to our heroine – sensual, pure. It’s a way of parsing herself as well as others, both an escape and a path to the life she’s meant for.
Towards the novel’s close, a deep friendship is ruptured by a double dose of trauma, gesturing to the pitfalls of confusing life and literature. Comunque, its most vital relationships remain those between its narrator and the volumes that pile up around her.
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. “When we turn the page we are born again,” she asserts. 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.