Winter Flowers – Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

Winter Flowers is a poignant, sensitively written tale on the devastating consequences of war and myriad forms of loss left in its wake.

What exactly was a war? An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible. incomprehensible.

Set during the closing stages of the First World War, the novel charts the story of Toussaint Caillet, his wife Jeanne and their young daughter Léo who Toussaint hasn’t seen growing up.

While Toussaint, like all men mobilized for the war, is away on the frontlines, Jeanne, like all women, is home managing day to day life and hoping fervently for the safe return of her husband. However, with income dwindling and crippling rations taking their toll, Jeanne must somehow make ends meet. After all, she now alone bears the responsibility of raising their daughter. With her qualifications, she finds work at a flower-making workshop, creating flowers that are ‘naturals’, an array of blooms with vivid colours that also give the novel its name.

When making flowers, Jeanne metamorphoses into an incredibly self-possessed creature whose focus, skill and attention to detail enthrall anyone who has the opportunity to watch her work. She can make 900 cowslip flowers in a day. Her hands produce improbable tea roses as opulent as lettuces, explosive swells of petals speckled with a shimmer of blood red or cherry red. She conjures up clusters, stalks and ears, umbels and flower heads, all more beautiful and more real than the real thing.

Given that jobs for women have become scarce and unreliable during war, she is grateful to have found work to occupy her, but the hours are long and deeply tiring.

Meanwhile, news reaches Jeanne that Toussaint is alive but grievously injured, his face has taken the brunt of the injury requiring facial reconstruction. Jeanne wants to meet him at the Val-de-Grace hospital but is deeply troubled by Toussaint’s explicit instructions that he has no desire to meet her yet.

And then suddenly one day, Jeanne comes home to discover that Toussaint has returned. He is unrecognizable, one side of his face is lopsided covered in bandages.

At first Jeanne stays rooted to her chair, entirely consumed with watching him and avoiding him. She knows what she should see, though, where she should look, but it bounces about, slips away from her. What she does grasp is that he’s taller, and handsome in his uniform, and unfamiliar too.

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for.

But although Toussaint is back safe, Jeanne immediately realizes that he is the not the man she once knew. The trauma of the war and facial injuries have rendered him shell shocked and unable to communicate. Where he once was a dynamic, jovial man, he has now been reduced to a silent wreck.

Toussaint introduces something new, not just within the walls of the small fourth-floor room, but also into Jeanne’s life and, to a lesser extent, into Léo’s: silence.

The mother and daughter whisper around him, in the narrow spaces relinquished to them by this silence.

Intertwined with this main storyline is that of Sidonie, Jeanne’s best friend and confidante, both women finding mutual support and companionship in each other.

So the two women see a good deal of each other. They share what little they have, the coffee and heating, the lack of coffee and lack of heating. The silences and absences. Their meager  meals too, occasionally.

Sidonie stitches clothes for a department store and has led a hard life. Having lost two husbands and four sons in tragic circumstances, Sidonie’s sole family is her son Eugene, who writes to her regularly but these letters stop when he is reported missing. The eventual confirmation of his death unleashes a wave of unimaginable grief in Sidonie.

What could Jeanne have added, with her own semi-tragedy – what placating promises, what lies? Toussaint, by contrast, would eventually heal, would get used to it, settle and pull himself together; at least, she could try to believe this and picture herself coming to terms with the man he’d turned into, with his injuries and his memories.

But what about Sidonie?

Winter Flowers is a poignant, profound meditation on grief and loss. How do we measure loss? Is death the only defining feature of a loss? What about the loss of a person’s spirit and personality, the very essence of one’s being? The story moves fluidly between the present where Jeanne and Toussaint must begin life anew just when peace is around the corner, and the past when rumblings of the war had just begun fuelling heightened tension and a sense of growing unreality.

As Jeanne struggles to adjust to Toussaint’s unsettling silence, she is often gripped by feelings of guilt. A part of her is relieved that Toussaint is alive. After all, so many others have suffered a much more terrible fate – either they are dead or worse, reported missing. And yet, she is painfully aware that Toussaint is a different man now, circumstances have made their life weary and fragile. Somehow they have to find that delicate balance, a way to adapt to this new, uncertain future and find their footing together. Subtle moments of joy do feature in the novel – the happy carefree days the couple enjoyed before the war, and even in the present when they find comfort in simple pleasures just when victory is in sight, a sense that things can limp back to a new kind of normalcy.

What about their daughter Léo? Having shared her space all her life with her mother, Leo has to come to terms with the sudden appearance of her father, a man she mostly never knew in flesh, only barely through a photo.

Winter Flowers, then, is a quiet, devastating novella that sensitively depicts the heavy burden of war, how debilitating it is psychologically not just on the men who were away fighting in harsh conditions, but also on the women they were compelled to leave behind, women who had to battle poverty, uncertainty, fear and emotional distress on a daily basis. Given that the act of war is often instigated by powerful people with ulterior motives, patriotism is often lauded. But the suffering and psychological damage is hardly ever acknowledged, damage that can also leave a lasting impression on subsequent generations.

Happening – Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it.

When the book opens, Ernaux is at a clinic, anxiously awaiting the results of an AIDS test. To her immense relief, the tests turn out negative. But the circumstances remind her of another kind of test she was compelled to take in her early twenties when she was not so lucky and the stress that she went through because of it.

Rewind to 1963 in Rouen and Ernaux is a young woman of twenty three, studying at a university and not in any serious relationship.  She has missed her periods for a week and a visit to her gynecologist Dr N confirms her worst fears – she is pregnant.

Ernaux is very sure she does not want to keep the child. But at a time when abortion is not legalized in France, Ernaux’s options are limited. She has to find a backstreet abortionist and keep the whole affair shrouded in secret, confiding in her parents is certainly not an option.

In the meanwhile, Ernaux has to go on with her life as if everything is normal. She attends her university lectures and visits her parents every weekend, although it all feels unreal to her and a sense of detachment creeps in, normal life starts feeling quite alien. Indeed, here’s how she describes that surreal phase – “I was living in a different world. There were the other girls, with their empty bellies, and there was me.”

The rest of this novella, then, charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion.

Ernaux, at the time, had no doubt she must end the pregnancy. The social stigma was just too great – first, the blemish on one’s reputation for raising an illegitimate child; second, the fear of being marked as a social failure, particularly exacerbated by her working class background.  But her decision unleashes a gamut of emotions – shame, loneliness spurred by her inability to confide to anyone about her predicament, alienation because suddenly she could no longer connect with her normal life.

The father of the child, a philosophy student called P, on learning of Ernaux’s pregnancy refuses to get involved and take any kind of responsibility. Ernaux must fend for herself. Both were equally involved in that passionate encounter, but in an unfair society, the man goes scot-free, the woman has to bear all the negative consequences. Ernaux talks about how it is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If an unmarried woman was expecting a child, she would be looked down upon for wanting to terminate the pregnancy, but should she choose to keep the baby her fate is even worse because then she will be judged harshly for bearing a child out of wedlock.

The question of class and its crucial bearing on her decision to abort is captured in this paragraph…

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.

This class distinction is also made painfully apparent to Ernaux when in a medical emergency she is admitted to the hospital post the abortion, reflected in the sudden change in the doctor’s attitude when he realizes that she is a university student and not just another uneducated, working-class woman.

Ernaux also makes a critical observation on law and how it is the axis around which abortion revolves.

As often was the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.

Happening, then, is a product of Ernaux’s desire or obsession forty years later to write about her abortion and “face the reality of that unforgettable event.” However, she finds it is not always an easy thing to do. Part of her fights against the idea of documenting that traumatic experience, but the other part wants to embark upon that venture at all costs and not be plagued by regret for not having taken that step.

I want to become immersed in that part of my life once again and learn what can be found there. This investigation must be seen in the context of a narrative, the only genre able to transcribe an event that was nothing but time flowing inside and outside of me.

Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and not mincing on details. This was my first book by Annie Ernaux and it won’t be my last.

Real Estate – Deborah Levy

Whether it’s her fiction or her memoirs, Deborah Levy’s prose is like no other. I am certainly a fan. The second book of her ‘Living Autobiography’ memoirs – The Cost of Living – had made it to my Best of 2018 list. Not surprisingly, I see Real Estate finding a place on my year end list too.

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy, the third and final volume of her triumphant “Living Autobiography’ series, a book that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality.

In her second book – The Cost of Living – Levy had to grapple with a dramatic change in her personal life. She was nearly fifty, had recently divorced her husband and had two teenaged daughters to support on her own. It was a tough and challenging time, but she embraced this change with aplomb, navigating this turbulent period with characteristic wit and wisdom.

When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own.

A quest that fires up her imagination, her real estate fantasies come in various striking avatars. Maybe a grand old house with an egg shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree in the garden. At times, she dreams that this property is well endowed with fountains, wells and majestic stairways, at other times she longs for it to be close to either a river or the sea.

The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

I imagined a house in which I could live and work and think at my own pace, but even in my imagination, this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism.

The wish for this home was intense, yet I could not place it geographically, nor did I know how to achieve such a spectacular house with my precarious income.

The odd thing was every time I tried to see myself inside this imagined house, I felt sad. It was as if the search for home was the point, and now that I had acquired it and the chase was over, there were no more branches to put in the fire. It seemed that acquiring a house was not the same as acquiring a home.

While solitude is crucial for her writing career to blossom, Levy also loves being surrounded by people. As she contemplates various real estate possibilities in her mind, even considering a quiet, rural existence, some of her friends can’t envisage her doing that. They know Levy is cosmopolitan, loves attending parties, loves entertaining and a house in the wilderness is hardly going to deliver on that front. But if she does buy her dream home, would she be content staying alone, or is she ready for a new life partner? Levy’s life is rich and varied filled with the warm company of friends and a zest for meeting new people, but she resists the idea of starting a romantic relationship when prodded to consider it by a male best friend.

The hectic life of a renowned writer takes Levy across continents – the book’s sections are named after the cities Levy travels to. The task of clearing her deceased American stepmother’s apartment takes her to New York; the trip to Mumbai is prompted by an invitation to a literary festival, a city where she savours the spicy, mouth-watering bhel puri and devours the most divine guava ice-cream planting in her mind the idea of buying an ice-cream machine; Paris becomes her new temporary residence when she is offered a fellowship; and a dear friend’s birthday sees her making her way to Berlin, the city that inspired her terrific novel The Man Who Saw Everything.

Pretty similar to The Cost of Living, Levy also explores the themes of womanhood and writing in Real Estate, sometimes drawing our attention to writings by other women in this endeavour. For instance, she dwells on the diaries of Susan Sontag which show “the experimental thoughts of a woman preparing to put her foot in the stirrups and get on to her high horse.” Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women while living alone in Boston – “I am in my little room, spending busy, happy days, because I have quiet, freedom, work enough, and strength to do it.”

Levy also highlights how independent, resourceful women are often perceived as a threat to men.

There are many resourceful and imaginative modern women who are heads of their households. Often described as ‘single mothers’, they experience the full weight of patriarchy’s hostility to their holding dominant power in the family. His final last grasp at crushing her imagination and capabilities is to accuse her of causing his impotence. After all, if she can create another sort of household, she can create another sort of world order.

Meanwhile, Levy acknowledges that many people her age are already pretty well off financially and possess their perfect beautiful homes, while she is not in same boat because she does not have the means yet, even if the desire is prominent. In fact, it is quite possible that she may never find her ideal home. But it doesn’t in any way mean that her life is missing anything vital. Levy’s life is vivid fuelled by travel, interesting people, fascinating conversations and an undaunted sense of adventure – a whole gamut of meaningful, valuable experiences that are no less powerful because they can’t be measured.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths.  This trait is visible from the very first page where the purchase of a small banana tree from a flower stall leads to thoughts on Georgia O’ Keeffe and her exquisite depiction of flowers in paintings, and then on to her sprawling home to New Mexico culminating in Levy’s own intense desire to possess a similarly exotic home. Her distinctive worldview, always searching and philosophical, explored through a slew of cultural references make Real Estate endlessly fascinating and tremendously quotable. The writing style brims with verve and chutzpah that is hers alone.

Intelligent, intimate, and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

Two Atmospheric French Novellas – Patrick Modiano & Dominique Barbéris

This post takes a look at two French novellas, different yet similar in many ways – they are haunting, gripping, set in and around Paris, and narrated in first person where the narrator is not really the central character. While I have reviewed a Patrick Modiano novella on this blog before – After the Circus, Barbéris is completely new to me. Long story short, both these novellas are excellent.

INVISIBLE INK – Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

Jean’s task is divided into three steps – first ask the concierge of a certain apartment building in the 15th arrondissement whether he has heard from Noelle; second, make his way to the General Delivery window of the post office and use Noelle’s card to retrieve her mail, and then stop at the café where Noelle spent a lot of her days and ask around about her. When the first two tasks culminate in a dead end, Jean proceeds to the café Noelle frequently haunted, hoping to pick up some sort of clue.

There he runs into Gerard Mourade, Noelle’s acquaintance and an aspiring actor, who reveals that Noelle was married to Roger Behaviour and lived in the same neighbourhood as the café. But Roger’s whereabouts also remain unknown.

Meanwhile, there’s the client himself – Georges Brainos – who has approached the Hutte Agency for the purpose of locating Noelle, leaving Jean to wonder what Brainos’ motive could possibly be. One day, on intercepting a letter meant for Noelle from the General Delivery, it dawns on Jean that Noelle had wed Sancho Lefebvre, and the mystery only deepens.

As the years roll on by, and even much after Jean is no longer employed at the agency, he manages to amass information in bits and pieces from various people who circled Noelle’s orbit, but no one can shed any meaningful light on either her true identity or her whereabouts.

It’s not a case that Jean single–mindedly broods over as time passes, but it hasn’t been completely erased from his mind either. What’s more, there remain substantial memory gaps that he can’t account for.

There’s something about Noelle’s case that holds a spell over him. Could it be that he had come across her, met her in the past, but had no inkling of her name?

Invisible Ink, then, is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. But even then, those memories are seemingly never whole, but jagged pieces mired in uncertainty. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill.

Truth be told, I’ve never owned a datebook and never kept a diary. It would have made my job easier. But I didn’t want to quantify my life. I let it flow by, like mad money that slips through your fingers. I wasn’t careful. When I thought about the future, I told myself that none of what I had lived through would ever be lost. None of it. I was too young to know that after a certain point, you start tripping over gaps in your memory.

The central character haunting the novella’s pages is, of course, the enigmatic Noelle Lefebvre, whose disappearance decades ago has clearly left a deep impression on Jean’s mind. Some details do emerge – she worked at a dance club owned by Georges Brainos who also had another restaurant to his name. But connecting all these dots does not make the job of finding her any easier.

As he tries to rake up the past in his quest for Noelle, Jean realizes that his memories are as elusive as the woman he is trying to find. Noelle is a paradox, both a presence (as a point of obsession for our narrator), and an absence in many ways. Is she even real or just a ghost, a figment of imagination?

Indeed, Jean’s investigation is fraught with abstract conclusions and the absence of any concrete forms or meaningful results. Things are hinted at, not effectively proven, until it all moves towards a fascinating finale.

Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE d’AVRAY – Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

In terms of mood and atmosphere, the qualities of a Modiano novel are reflected in A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray too – the air of melancholia and sadness. This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading.

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Otherwise, she is mostly left to her own devices stifled by boredom and seclusion of this calm, leafy suburb. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

Jane and Claire Marie seldom see each other, in fact Jane’s visits to Ville-d’Avray are pretty rare. While the distance is an issue, her partner Luc hates visiting the place because he finds Claire Marie boring and the dullness of their lives gets on his nerves.

On that particular autumn afternoon, however, Jane makes a visit to Ville-d’Avray on her own. As she settles in the garden outside waiting for her sister to come out with drinks, a gamut of memories flood her mind. Those flashbacks particularly dwell on the sisters’ lonely, isolated childhood, those dreary Sundays when the hours dragged on interminably as both the sisters engaged actively in a make-believe world filled with wild landscapes and romance conjured up by books they read, notably Jane Eyre. For the people around them, those Sunday evenings mostly invoked feelings of fear – of seeing the day end, or of stirring up an antique sadness.

As the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Revealing his name as Hermann, he shares his story of his “other life” in communist Hungary, how he escapes that country to choose a life of exile abroad. It’s a story that seems as shadowy as his import-export business he claims to own.

Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

While Jane is our narrator, it is Claire Marie really who is the nucleus of the book. Despite her outwardly unruffled and passive demeanour, she unsettles Jane greatly. Jane recalls how several years ago, Claire Marie stumped her with the loaded question – “Are there ever times when you dream of something else?” It’s a question that gets under Jane’s skin and makes her wonder whether her sister is happy with the life she has chosen.

What of Claire Marie? We are told that as a child, Claire Marie had a dreamy disposition, living in a world of her own, often staring out of the window for hours on end, waiting for exactly what? Did the world outside signify something infinitely better than her lonely existence at home?

Claire Marie noticed that, without thinking, she was going more and more often to the window and looking out, the way she’d done when she was little. All night long on the border (so he’d told her), searchlights would illuminate the barbed-wire fences and the watchtowers; and when she looked out at her street, those luminous circles and those pockets of darkness were what she’d see, as they’d been seen in former times by people desperate to leave, to change their lives.

As Jane grows up and transforms into a more practical adult, Claire Marie never really grows out of her passive, not-in-this-world persona, and Jane is often left to ponder what her sister expects from her life.

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. Is a life of contentment preferable to one that boasts of drama and intrigue? The mood and tone captured is excellent – feverish, deeply unsettling and rife with lurking dangers as Claire Marie wanders alone in the dense forest and near the ponds depicted in Corot paintings.

I could practically see my sister strolling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder (which is always the case with Corot).

The flavor of autumn is also superbly realized, a time when the mornings and evenings are drenched in chilly, torrential rains; the gardens are darkened with showers; the asphalt and slate roofs glisten with water; the brown leaves lie sodden in heaps. An aura of ruin, desolation can be felt all around where patches of reflected light alternate with shadows settling in.

Set during an afternoon that is burnished the colour of molten gold, like the light that shimmers over the sea, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, then, is a haunting, elegantly written novella where the tension is palpable under a seemingly calm surface. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

Checkout 19 – Claire-Louise Bennett

In 2016, I was highly impressed by Pond, a book that featured on my Best of 2016 list that year. Not surprisingly, I was really looking forward to Checkout 19, and was lucky to procure a signed copy from the Blackwell’s UK website.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The book comprises a total of seven pieces. I began the book thinking that these are seven different chapters, but on progressing further, I noticed many themes and motifs that are intertwined, denying it the neat classification of a short story collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on some of the pieces separately, because I don’t know how else to approach it.

In the first piece called ‘A Silly Business”, the narrative voice is first person plural (as if they are complicit with the reader) and we are immediately plunged into Bennett’s highly original writing, as our narrator begins talking about books and our attitude towards them. She highlights how we go to a library, pull out six to eight books, and once we have them, we can’t really get engrossed in them. Once we begin reading a book, we immediately begin to wonder what lurks in the pages of the other tomes.

It really was just the same no matter which book we picked up. As long as there were other books we thought about the sorts of words they might contain non-stop and were thus precluded from becoming engrossed with the very book we had in our hands. The very book. A silly business. Yes, it was a silly business.

Bennett, then, dives into our narrator’s childhood love for reading, how the books she read had an aura of exclusivity about them, a hobby greatly encouraged by her mother, and yet there was a hidden corner in the house which displayed a row of books that were out of bounds for young readers. It didn’t stop our narrator from secretly opening this cupboard with mixed feelings of curiosity and anxiety, and pulling out a book – “We were looking at things that were no business of ours. Illicit things.”

In the second piece called ‘Bright Spark’, our narrator elaborates on her deep craving for solitude, and the crush she has on her English teacher, Mr Burton, highlighting how he is a critical force in her school years, encouraging her talent as a writer and in a way laying a foundation for her career. She adores him, his classes are lively and exciting, but she hates how he is seemingly quite pally with the boys, a sort of male bonding that excludes her. She wonders about his life outside the classroom. Then, one day, he fails to appear for a class and his place is taken by a substitute teacher who is no patch on Mr Burton. In a fit of boredom, our narrator begins doodling on the back of her exercise book, and failing to capture Mr Burton’s facial features in an attempted drawing, she begins to feverishly pen a story. Mr Burton later chances upon it and a bond is formed.

He was with me very strongly when I lay in the dark, it was almost as if I was made of him. Writing could do that. Here was a way of reaching someone, of being with them, when you were not and never could be. Here was where we met. Here was where the distinction between us blurred. When he returned my story to me the following Tuesday the paper was covered with him – touching it was like touching his skin.

The third piece, ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, the longest and my favourite of the lot, is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and reality dotted with a dazzling array of authors and books which played an important role in shaping our narrator’s world. Our narrator tells us how when she was in her twenties, she penned the story of Tarquin Superbus – “a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” The era is never defined, but when he is having conversations with the Doctor, our narrator imagines “gentlemen in the mid-1800s so to speak – byzantine, comical and portending.” Where is his apartment situated? Vienna possibly, but Venice seems apt – “if his grasp on reality is a little shaky to say the least, Tarquin Superbus is in Venice, because, after all, what reality is there to be found in Venice?”

Our narrator subsequently chronicles a chain of events in Superbus’ life – his close relationship with the Doctor who looked like Death (“there was nothing inside of him, he was vaporous, empty as a hologram, he achieved movement, not via the mechanism of his body, but by the fact that he consisted of a substance lighter than air – Death.”), but more importantly the central feature in his life which is the acquisition of a large library of books. The possession of such a gargantuan library, at first, makes Superbus a figure of awe and reverence, and he revels in his sense of importance. But this respect quickly gives way to contempt and derision, which begins to trouble Superbus deeply.

When he confides to his close friend the Doctor, the latter enters Superbus’ visually stunning library, begins pulling out various books off the shelves and feverishly turning their pages. He delivers his shocking verdict – all the pages in the books are literally blank, there is not a single printed word.

That is the original outline of the story penned by our narrator in her twenties, an enterprise that is thwarted by an incident revealed in the final pages of this piece.  In later years, however, she adds to it the dramatic revelation by the Doctor…

The pages Tarquin, are all blank, except for one page. Within the collection there is one page that is not blank – at least not entirely. It has upon it one sentence; that’s all, that’s it – one sentence. And this one sentence contains everything. Everything.

In subsequent years, our narrator often goes back to this story, rewriting it and embellishing it with books and authors that have influenced her way of thinking with the result that as a reader what we are reading is a retelling of the Superbus story.

The Doctor provided no explanation of this sort in the story I wrote all those years ago. The pages of Superbus’ library were blank, and that was all there was to it. It seems in the retelling I have got carried away. But then I have read so much and written so much since then it is hardly to be wondered at that in the meantime some ideas pertaining to the potency of the written word, based upon direct and seismic experiences, have been developing inside of me and should find their way out…

It’s a story that acts as a framing device as our narrator then deviates from that path and ventures into a range of topics and life experiences that occupy her thoughts – how women in the earlier century, restricted to the household, were belittled driving them to point of madness; how she is drawn to shadows rather than light citing Tanizaki’s concept of ‘visible darkness’; a boyfriend who mocks her reading choices; a trip to Florence influenced by Foster’s A Room with a View; a journey to Tangier and Fez prompted by Paul Bowles’ life (“what kind of person, who had the kinds of connections and opportunities that Paul Bowles must certainly have had, feels that life in New York would be boring nevertheless?”), how she is of the view that Anais Nin should be read later on in life, “when one has solidified and feels so very sure of themselves and would perhaps benefit from coming undone, from perhaps going out of their minds”, how her boyfriend Dale keeps poetry by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath out of her reach because they committed suicide, and whether she has what it takes to be a writer.

I had read a few books by Francoise Sagan, including “Bonjour Tristesse”, which I discovered she’d written when she was just eighteen, and that threw me into a tizz for a little while because I would have been that exact age when I read “Bonjour Tristesse”, but the things I was writing at that time when I was that age had none of the clarity and assuredness of Sagan’s work, they were autotelic and inscrutable and quite often when I read back over them I didn’t understand them at all, they perplexed and disturbed me, they didn’t tell a story, they expressed confusion and despair and desire and anger, irrepressible forces which issued out of dissonance that existed between my interior life and the world around me, and nobody would want to read that…

In the fifth piece ‘We Were the Drama’, among many things, our narrator recalls her impromptu trip to the seaside city of Brighton, a spur of the moment excursion that considerably distresses her boyfriend Dale. She talks about how she had no idea about Brighton’s best kept secret at the time – Ann Quin, but subsequently comes to love her imaginative work, particularly Berg. She also dwells on how Quin’s working-class circumstances stifle and terrorize her, how her job in a Cornwall hotel is a symbol of mind-numbing tedium. Her travels to the US are a bright spot, but the return to menial work again fills her with dread and consequently compels her to committ suicide. But Ann Quin’s suicide is the not the only one that haunts the pages of this piece, our narrator witnesses another disturbing death of an unknown person in an unfamiliar place that leaves an indelible impression on her mind.

As I said before, the boundaries of genre in Checkout 19 are pretty blurred, but interestingly, the second and third parts (‘Bright Spark’ and ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’) form the nucleus of the book and the subsequent pieces build on the ideas showcased in those two sections so that this could possibly be called a novel with its seemingly disparate pieces bound together by the recurrence of certain themes, motifs, incidents and images. For instance, the man who pushes a book into our narrator’s hand when she is a supermarket cashier assigned to checkout 19, reappears later as a Russian guy who glides through the aisles at the speed of light always pushing the basket in front of him. The increasingly possessive boyfriend Dale who makes his first appearance in ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, becomes a kind of a central figure in “We Were the Drama.” Glimpses of our narrator’s story that captures the imagination of her English professor in ‘Bright Spark’ are revealed to us in some of the final pieces.

What about our narrator herself, what do we know about her? She is certainly vulnerable, yearns for solitude, is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, finds herself in relationships with the wrong men who thwart her creative ambition, who are a disturbing presence in her life. But there are people who also value her love for books and writing, particularly Mr Burton, her mother, her friend Natasha.  

Checkout 19, then crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality.

I’m not sure whether I have done a good job of conveying the mood and essence of this book, but my assertion – that it is poised to be one of my favourites this year – will hopefully compel you to crack open its pages and delve into Bennett’s vibrant world.