I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys – Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

HAUNTED BY DOMINICA

The book begins with an account of Rhys’ childhood in Dominica where we are given a flavour of how her yearning for her homeland and Creole roots played a crucial role in the way her novels and stories shaped up. And yet Rhys’s childhood on this stunning Caribbean island wasn’t exactly a fairytale. Born as Ella Gwendoline, she was the fourth child and the second daughter to parents William Rees Williams, a ship doctor with Welsh-Irish roots and Minna Lockhart, a white Creole and the daughter of a wealthy plantation owning family. Gwen was a bright, intelligent child, a firm favourite of her father’s but had an extremely difficult relationship with her mother.

In Rhys’ memories, her father had always been gently encouraging, unjudgemental, trying to do what was best for his favourite child, while her mother missed no opportunity to crush and humiliate a daughter of whom she was perhaps a little jealous.

But the sense of being an outsider often tormented Gwen accentuating her feeling of alienation. Gwen would later yearn to leave the island to begin life anew in Europe, but the spell and magic of the place was always deeply ingrained within her – bathing in rainforest pools, sweeping vistas of the sea, the family’s holiday retreats, raging thunderstorms and the overall mercurial beauty of the island.

The island held a more powerful grasp on her imagination through the enduring presence in her mind of an unforgettable landscape: the green and densely mantled mountains that Rhys knew from childhood. They offered a majestic presence, along with a rich stew of gossip, island stories and family stories that would nourish Jean Rhys’s fiction.

LONDON YEARS

Driven by a frenzy to pursue drama, Rhys landed in London in the summer of 1907 and adopted the stage name Ella to kickstart her acting career.

Aged just seventeen in August 1907, Gwen suffered from crippling self-consciousness and fits of anger and despair that she did not know how to control. The compensation came in the moments when, however briefly, she could believe in a glorious future.

Her first impressions of London, a dank, grey city, pretty much mirrored what her naïve protagonist Anna Morgan experienced in Voyage in the Dark. Rhys’s early London years were marked by a series of small roles as a chorus girl in various theatre productions; it was soon obvious that her chances of moving on to the next level were rather slim. A period marked by barely making ends meet, residing in dreary bedsits, a stagnating career and her heightened sense of being an outsider in a foreign city, Rhys still displayed a remarkable flair for resilience and initiative that was to sustain her in her later difficult years.

THE UNRELIABLE MEN IN RHYS’S LIFE

Like the women in her novels, Rhys had love affairs and even married thrice, but unlike her creations, Rhys never came across as a hapless victim. And yet these relationships were volatile – happy times punctuated with moments of tragedy. From the ultra-wealthy and ultra-conservative banker Lancelot Smith (her first lover) to the influential and controlling author Ford Madox Ford, from her bigamous first husband Jean Lenglet, to her gullible, undependable third husband Max Hamer, Rhys’ relationships had all the makings of a roller coaster journey forcing her to sharpen her survival skills.  Ironically, of all her relationships only Lancey was reliable when it came to money, her husbands caused her much heartache on this front. And yet it can’t be denied that despite their faults Rhys deeply cared for Lenglet and Hamer till the very end.

Her initial love affairs were doomed too. When pregnant with Lancey’s child, Rhys was compelled to go in for an abortion since Lancey refused to bear the burden of a scandal given his wealth and position. In return, Lancey opted to provide her with a regular allowance. Ford Madox Ford was a different kettle of fish. Besotted with Rhys, he was instrumental in bolstering Rhys’ writing career, but he wielded a dominance and spell over her which she found hard to break away from.

Rhys’ married life was equally chaotic. Her first husband Jean Lenglet was already married when he wed Rhys (she was kept in the dark) and he had an astonishing capacity to fall foul of the law by cheating regularly, a tendency which a series of prison terms failed to diminish. And yet Seymour goes on to show how Rhys always maintained a soft spot for Lenglet. Despite Lancey’s warnings, Rhys remained undeterred, excited by the prospect of an adventurous life with Lenglet filled with Paris and poetry.

Risks, as she calmly reminded him (Lancey), were what she most enjoyed. Didn’t he remember that she thrived on danger?

Rhys’ marriage with Lenglet was not always hunky dory – the couple fought, Rhys’ first child, a baby boy, died within months of being born, an incident which caused her deep misery. Her marriage to Lenglet also saw Rhys experience the zenith and nadir when it came to money – Lenglet’s job as an interpreter and his successful foray into currency trading post war saw him amass quite a bit of wealth giving Rhys her first taste of luxury and the inclination towards the finer things in life. Rhys had her only daughter – Maryvonne – with Lenglet, a mother-daughter bond that remained strong through the years despite Rhys’ guilt of having left Maryvonne in a slew of orphanages when she was growing up.

Rhys’ second husband Leslie Tilden Smith, a freelance editor, is depicted as a kind, generous man. With his connections in publishing, Tilden Smith would turn out to be an ardent champion of Rhys’ work despite the constant bickering between the couple and the sense that Rhys never harboured deep feelings for Smith although she remained loyal to him.

Fearing the spectre of loneliness after Tilden Smith’s death, Rhys went on to marry his friend Max Hamer. Rhys, prone to bouts of depression and melancholy, was charmed by Hamer’s bonhomie and his positive outlook on life. But that came with a caveat – he became easily beguiled by harebrained schemes and ideas put forth by friends and acquaintances, often investing sums of money into losing ventures. This would culminate in a prison stint that would cause Rhys much anxiety, forcing her to fend for herself. Her fear, paranoia and loneliness having reached fever pitch, she often relied on friends and family for moral and financial support.

WRITING – A VOCATION AND AN ANCHOR

Ford Madox Ford played a crucial role in catapulting Rhys’ writing career though not without compromise. Her first collection of Paris stories called The Left Bank Sketches and Studies of present-Day Bohemian Paris was published by Jonathan Cape in 1927 to generally favourable reviews. Given that Ford was a well-regarded writer at the time and Rhys was barely a novice, Rhys was powerless to do anything about his lengthy introduction to her collection of stories which hardly added any value. Her next novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, which Rhys considered her best novel, was critically praised. The dual and time shifting perspectives in Voyage in the Dark, between present London and Anna Morgan’s  past in Dominica was fuelled by Rhys’ nostalgia for Dominica and her desire to revisit her homeland (which she would in 1936 and find it much changed to her dismay). Critical reception for Voyage in the Dark was mixed, the abject bleakness in the book and its dark ending did not find much of an audience. Despite hints to produce a book less harsh in tone and subject matter, Rhys refused to relent and went on to write what many consider her finest work today – Good Morning, Midnight. And yet ironically, Good Morning Midnight when published in 1939 received dismal reviews. By then, reviewers and audiences had had enough of the sordid milieu that formed the essence of Rhys’s work and the timing also worked against her – 1939 was a year of fear and uncertainty when the spectre of the Second World War loomed large.

What stands out though is the fact that the only two people who recognised the genius in Good Morning, Midnight at the time were her husbands – Lenglet and Tilden Smith.

The next twenty five years would see Rhys vanish without a trace as far as the literary world was concerned, and yet the biography goes on to show that Rhys wasn’t entirely out of touch with friends in the publishing industry.

Disheartened by the cold reception to Good Morning Midnight, Rhys struggled to pen her next novel Wide Sargasso Sea over the next few decades, an enterprise that would require much coaxing, encouragement and patience from her ardent supporter Francis Wyndham (the man responsible for reigniting interest in her work) and her editor Diana Athill. The post war years were also particularly challenging for Rhys – her drinking had significantly increased exacerbating her spats with Tilden Smith, his subsequent death, her marriage to the increasingly unreliable Max Hamer, his imprisonment, mounting paranoia, uncontrollable rages and assaults against neighbours that resulted in some time in an asylum and a stint in prison.

RHYS IS NOT THE ‘RHYS WOMAN’

Today the enduring appeal of the classic ‘Rhys woman’ is unmistakable – the self-aware, sometimes mocking but helpless woman who is compelled to depend on men and money for survival. However, one of Rhys’ biggest gripe was how often she was associated with the women she created, although the truth could not be more different. Seymour eloquently makes her point…

Self-knowledge meant everything to Rhys. Each of those fictional women was granted elements of their author’s pitilessly scrutinized personality. As painfully self-aware as their creator, they, too, can be by turns watchful; shocking; angry; witty, and ruthless. Like Rhys herself, they learn to rely on drink for courage and consolation. Unlike her, they neither read much – Rhys was an avid and discerning reader – nor do they write.

Deprived of their author’s critical sense of purpose, the women who belong to the world of Rhys’s bleak and often savagely comic fictions are more helpless than their strong-willed – and often downright willful – maker ever was.

For Rhys, writing was the salve when she was often helpless against forces outside her control and even those which she could have avoided. Seymour makes a vital case for how Rhys’ work was a blend of fact and fiction – many elements of these real time incidents and episodes would form the kernel of her stories and novels, but they were just pointers and while they offered a tiny glimpse into the life of a very private woman, they weren’t entirely accurate in portraying Rhys’ real personality. Having said that, Seymour does state that those looking for more colour on her personal life would do well to delve into her stories which showcase many facets of notable episodes that marked Rhys’s life.

Rhys had the self-awareness and a flair for mordant wit a la Sasha Jensen in Good Morning Midnight, but unlike her or Julia Martin or Anna Morgan who were pretty much on a downward spiral, Rhys had her writing to sustain her. Plus, Rhys exhibited a remarkable will and spirit right from her early years to soldier on despite mounting difficulties.

A FASCINATING BIOGRAPHY OF A FASCINATING WRITER

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys really comes alive through these pages – cultured, a perfectionist in her art, witty, self-mocking, temperamental yet vulnerable. I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

Given the tumultuous life she led, it is extraordinary that Rhys managed to write her novels with her customary focus, drive and unflinching determination which involved frequent revisions, chiseling her craft, fine tuning the perfect sentence. Drama school dreams cut short, abortion, death of her first child, financially unreliable husbands, heavy drinking, rages, depression, loneliness, poverty were elements that dotted the landscape of her existence, but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Fame and critical success, which should have been hers during the prime of her life, were destined to grace her doorstep when she was a much older woman, but that recognition, however late, was well deserved and it’s heartening to know that it’s a success Rhys could finally enjoy.

Writing from pitiless self-knowledge, Jean Rhys addresses the watchful and lonely outsider who lurks within us all. And here, I believe, lies the answer to the enduring power of a novelist whose softly insistent, knowing and sui generis voice speaks with more power to our times even than to her own.

Death and the Seaside – Alison Moore

I was very impressed with two of Alison Moore’s novels I had read some years earlier; The Lighthouse and Missing with the latter particularly finding a place on My Best of 2018 list. As part of #ReadIndies hosted by Karen and Lizzy, it felt time to read another of her novels – all published by Salt – and I am glad to report that Death and the Seaside is also another wonderful novel.

Death and the Seaside is a terrific tale of failure, of being easily influenced, death and writing that unravels in a rather unexpected way.

Our protagonist is Bonnie Falls, a young woman about to turn 30. Bonnie’s life so far has been without any direction or purpose and she has not much to show for her half-hearted efforts. She is a college dropout having abandoned a degree in literature, which rather limits the job opportunities available.

After a few years of literary criticism, Bonnie has found that she could no longer read a story without seeing it through a lens of critical analysis, as if there was always some underlying meaning that you might miss if you were not paying attention. And at the same time, she began to see the real world in terms of narrative; she saw stories and symbolism everywhere. She found it all exhausting, and left her course – which her father had called a Mickey Mouse degree anyway – before taking her final exams or completing her dissertation.

However, she manages to secure two cleaning jobs, one at a pharmaceutical laboratory and the other at an amusement arcade, quite dreary but she needs the money.  

Bonnie has lived with her parents for most of her life, but as she approaches thirty they feel it is time for her to move on and out. Bonnie manages to find a place on rent at the end of the ominously named ‘Slash Lane’ but given that her income is not sufficient to cover the full rent amount, her parents offer to chip in a bit.

Meanwhile, Bonnie remains as untethered and adrift as ever. She seems to be going nowhere and can’t bring herself to dramatically alter her circumstances. Her state of mind is reflected in the apartment she has chosen – characterless rooms saddled with bric-a-brac left by previous renters giving the impression of the transient nature of an impersonal hotel room.

Bonnie does seem to show some promise in one area though – she is an aspiring writer. In fact, the first chapter of Death and the Seaside is actually the beginning of a story that Bonnie has typed out. Bonnie’s protagonist is Susan who goes for a holiday to a seaside hotel and witnesses strange happenings. A note inserted under the door of Susan’s hotel room has faint markings of some elusive words imprinted on it that only she can see; to all others the note is blank.

She walked over and picked up the scrap of paper, but when she looked at it she found that it was blank; although perhaps there was the faintest suggestion of something there, as if it had been photocopied to oblivion…She turned again to the piece of paper, and she almost thought that she might be able to make out a message after all, or just a word, but even as she looked, her sense of that dim outline disappeared, like a shadow when the sun slips behind a cloud.

In another incident, Susan is roused from her sleep in the middle of the night and notices the word ‘jump’ etched on the window. That story ends there simply because Bonnie has no idea how to proceed further.

We are then introduced to the other main character in the novel and Bonnie’s landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia comes to visit Bonnie one afternoon after she has settled down in the flat…

Bonnie opened the door. The woman standing on her doormat – a tall woman wearing a sheepskin coat – looked at Bonnie with a degree of interest that made Bonnie feel uneasy, and she touched the front of her dressing gown to check that it was securely fastened. The woman’s big, bright eyes made Bonnie feel like Little Red Riding Hood being looked at by the wolf.

The two women strike up a conversation which mostly consists of Sylvia asking Bonnie a slew of questions about her life and the motivations behind her writing. Sylvia takes an unusual interest in Bonnie, particularly in the specific story Bonnie has written about Susan and is very keen to learn how it will evolve. In their conversations, certain incidents in Bonnie’s past are revealed to the reader, which are subconsciously reproduced in Bonnie’s unfinished story although she vehemently denies it and insists that her story is just pure fiction. For instance, Bonnie has been troubled by sleepwalking in her childhood, and there are times in the past when she displayed a tendency to jump from heights as some sort of a death-wish.

“When I was a kid,” said Bonnie, “I started sleepwalking. I’d wake up and find myself standing at a window, like I was looking out, although I wasn’t really seeing, I suppose. But one time, the window was open, and Mum found me halfway out of it. She had to keep the windows locked and hide the keys.”

Sylvia is persistent that Bonnie finishes her story and with this aim in mind arranges a seaside holiday for the two of them, possibly at the place where Bonnie holidayed once as a child and which Bonnie inadvertently has used as a backdrop for her story.

Why is Sylvia so deeply interested in an unremarkable person like Bonnie? Is there something sinister lurking behind Sylvia’s motives?  This remains a mystery to the reader until it all becomes clear as the novel progresses and reaches its dark conclusion.

Bonnie is a fascinating character simply because she is so unmoored, malleable and easily influenced. She has no clue where she is headed and as far as society is concerned, she is something of a failure. For the most part, she is ambivalent about her circumstances showing no inclination to take charge. She is also readily suggestible. To cite an example, at her laboratory cleaning job, her colleague, the brash Fiona, who loves playing Truth and Dare, challenges Bonnie to open one of the lab doors and let all the animals free. Any other person would have point-blank refused or ignored Fiona. But Bonnie can’t say no, and actually attempts to carry out that challenge, then invariably chickens out only to be subjected to further ridicule.

Bonnie is also lonely. Every day, between her two cleaning jobs, she spends the afternoon at the cinema all by herself.

During these matinee showings, she was often the only person in the auditorium. In the dark, she ate her popcorn and lost herself in the film, something historical or futuristic, something set in another country or on another planet. It only took an hour or so, ninety minutes, for the world outside to become unreal. When she emerged, the familiar town would look strange, like a set, the oblivious shoppers like walk-ons. After horror films, she felt uneasy in broad daylight, and made an effort to avoid alleyways and underpasses and anywhere deserted…

Even her 30th birthday, a milestone one, is a rather desultory affair – a restaurant dinner where the only guests are her overbearing parents, Fiona and Sylvia, an odd assortment. It does appear that Sylvia is the only genuine friend that Bonnie has had for a while, and since neither of them has anyone else to go on a holiday with, they readily agree to go away together. Sylvia’s role in the story appears a tad murky and how their tales ultimately intertwine is what makes the novel so interesting.

With respect to the novel’s structure, most sections are from Bonnie’s point of view with some chapters devoted to Bonnie’s developing story about Susan. Only three chapters are narrated in the first person from Sylvia’s angle gradually giving a glimpse into her character and her reasons for striking up a friendship with Bonnie.

As the title suggests, one of the prominent themes of the novel is death or a preoccupation with death. There is a particular chapter in the book where Sylvia alludes to Bonnie’s abandoned thesis on the subject of how death and the sea are irrevocably interlinked.

All these unfinished stories of Bonnie’s are set by the sea, and one must ask: why this obsession with the sea? She does not live there, although she could. When considering this question, one ought to take into account the fact that in each of Bonnie’s stories – as well as in many of the novels on her bookshelves – the sea is a metaphor for death. Correspondingly, to be at the seaside is to be at the edge of death. The seashore is a threshold.

It is a chapter brimming with literary references such as Veronique Olmi’s tragic novella Beside the Sea, John Banville’s The Sea, Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and so on. The novel also examines how a child’s upbringing in a certain manner can carry repercussions well into adulthood offering a window into Bonnie’s tendency towards jumping from heights and why the idea of death remains embedded in her subconscious.

In Alison Moore’s assured hands, the novel unfolds in a style that is clever, original and uncanny, as she effortlessly weaves in literature and elements of psychology in this compelling narrative. She excels at creating an atmosphere of dread and creeping unease especially in the way Bonnie and Sylvia’s relationship plays out. The last few chapters, set at the seaside resort, have a feverish, surreal quality to them as the circumstances described in Bonnie’s written story eerily merge with that of her own life. This is a very character-driven novel (there’s nothing remarkable about Bonnie’s life generally) and it is to Moore’s credit that she manages to make both Sylvia and Bonnie unforgettable.

In a nutshell, Death and the Seaside is another excellent novel from Alison Moore’s oeuvre, definitely worth reading.

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.

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.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

But gradually a persona of the woman’s friend emerges. He was a professor teaching creative writing, and at one point she was his student. They have a brief affair, but their romantic relationship quickly peters out. And yet, they remain the best of friends, very close in fact, much to the envy and chagrin of his wives. We learn that the man was married thrice, but divorced twice. The wives are not named either but are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, Wife Three. While his marriages, while they lasted, were unions based on love and passion, Wife One and Wife Two were always disturbed by the fact that they were never his confidantes in the way the narrator was.

Meanwhile, when Wife Three requests to meet our narrator, the latter is perturbed but she agrees. It seems that Wife Three has an unusual request. Now that her husband is no more, she does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. With a few failed relationships behind her and now quite alone, our narrator seeks solace in Apollo’s presence. She reads Rilke’s poems to him, takes him for walks to the park, and allows him to sleep on her bed, his huge bulk is a constant source of comfort to her.

It occurs to me that someone used to read to Apollo. Not that I think he was a trained certified therapy dog. But I believe that someone must have read aloud to him – or if not to him at least while he was present – and that his memory of that experience is a happy one.

Or maybe Apollo is a canine genius who has figured something out about me and books. Maybe he understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.

Our narrator also ponders on the intelligence of dogs, whether they are capable of feelings, and the endless trouble they endure of making themselves understood to a human.

She questions – Does a dog understand betrayal? For instance, she talks about mastiffs and their great size and how they are known for being fiercely protective and loyal to their masters. But let us suppose, the master decides to abandon it one day. Will that mastiff feel betrayed? After some contemplation, Nunez decides probably not. It is more likely that the main thing on the mastiff’s mind will be – Who will protect my master now?

Another point to think about – What do we really know about animal suffering? She cites that there is evidence of dogs and animals having a higher tolerance for pain than humans do. But their true capacity for suffering, like the true measure of their intelligence, must remain a mystery.

The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. Apollo grieves in his own way for his dead master and our narrator tries various tricks to draw him out like music and massage therapies. But it is apparent to us that the narrator is also profoundly affected by the loss of her dear friend.

The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation calls to ask how I am. I tell him about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m skeptical about pet shrinks, and he says, That’s not what I meant.

Maybe, what she felt for him was something deeper, it could be that she was in love with him. She doesn’t readily acknowledge this, but we know that the two of them shared a special bond, which was not sexual, but one of lasting friendship, the kind where they could easily confide and talk to each other. When our narrator wonders why she is looking after his dog, she admits that perhaps on some subconscious level, she is hoping that the love she displays towards Apollo will bring her dead friend back too.

As Apollo gradually becomes an intrinsic part of our narrator’s life, she realizes that she has been shunning her friends and acquaintances and veering more and more towards solitude. She becomes increasingly obsessed with his care to the point that she prefers his company rather than to reach out for any sort of human connection.

He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.

In a way, the novel is akin to a letter that the narrator is writing to her late friend, she addresses him as ‘you’ throughout the book. Nunez’s writing is simple, lucid…and to emphasize her ideas, she relies on anecdotes and interesting references, be it books, films or newspaper articles. She particularly focuses on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip, and the intense love Ackerley felt for his pet, almost as if they were in a serious relationship. That book is new to me but I did read his We Think the World of You many years ago, which I thought was brilliant. The other book frequently mentioned is Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Filled with wry observations and keen insights into friendship, the nature of love, suicide and its implications, the art of writing and whether it is the right medium to process grief and so on, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.