September was a pretty banner month for me. For one thing, I got to attend a 10-day writing residency on an off-the-grid island, with two other writers, a wood-fired sauna, and some attendant loons and beavers. For another, I got my hands on Claire-Louise Bennett’s newest book, Checkout 19.
If you aren’t familiar with Claire-Louise Bennett, then you should probably go and read my review of her debut book, Pond. It’s beautiful, thoughtful, funny, and unusual. When I found out about Checkout 19, I was very excited. In fact, I was so excited that I sneakily ordered it from a UK bookseller so that I wouldn’t have to wait for its North American release in spring 2022.
I’ll say it straight off the bat: she is not a writer for everyone. The back cover describes this book as “fusing fantasy with lived experience,” and make no mistake—Checkout 19 is weird. I loved every single moment of it.
I am going to try and give you a picture. It’s going to be hard. So before I begin, a taste:
Turning the page. Turning the page. Turning the page and holding the book up a little higher. And the reason we do that, now that we are reflecting on it, is because once we have turned the page we feel inclined to lift our chin and gaze upwards. And the reason we feel like gazing upwards is because we have turned over a new leaf. A new leaf! —that’s right. We have turned over a new leaf and as such we feel instantly youthful and supremely open-minded and that is why we quite naturally adopt the uplifted mein of an urbane albeit slightly indulged protégé every time we turn the page. A new leaf. Yes. By the time we get to the bottom of the right page we have aged approximately twenty years. We are no longer holding the book up. No. No. The book has dropped. Our face has dropped. We have jowls. We do. We have a double chin. That’s right. We wallow. We wallow. We are wallowing in our chins. We really have aged at least twenty years. It’s no wonder then is it that we don’t read to the very end of the right page properly. No. No. No wonder at all that we are itching to turn it over. No wonder whatsoever that we anticipate turning the page so very fervidly. As if it were a matter of life or death. Life or death. Life or death. It is a matter of life or death in fact. Yes. Yes. Yes, it is. Turning the pages. Turning the pages. When we turn the page we are born again. Living and dying and living and dying and living and dying. Again, and again. And really that’s the way it ought to be. The way that reading ought to be done. Yes. Yes. Turning the pages. Turning the pages. With one’s entire life.”Checkout 19
She talks about turning the pages here—and Checkout 19 is a page-turner, in its own kind of way. It’s not so much that there is a thriller of a plot that you need to see resolved, but that you are carried along on the backs of long, rolling waves of words, caught up in their momentum. The sentences meander and digress and come back full circle—or else end up somewhere entirely different and unexpected, but somehow perfect. The syntax is strange and beautiful, and the punctuation is delightfully sparse. The ultimate impression is one of being in a sidecar along for the ride with a mind that is blooming with images and ideas that you just can’t take your eyes off of.
Checkout 19 is a book about reading, and a book about writing. Its narrator speaks sometimes as “I” and sometimes as “we,” and describes her life and experiences over and over through her relationships with books and words. Her first forays into writing, her memories of and preferences for certain books, the large and small experiences and traumas that have informed her words—these make up the story. We have windows into her own vivid imagined characters, such as the fantastic Tarquin Superbus (“a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century”), and the girl in the dungeon who sews her sisters’ clothes “until her fingers are reduced to threads and her body goes up in flames.”
We see too, her relationships with people—family, teachers, roommates, lovers, friends. Those who intrigue her, those who puzzle her, and those who violate and traumatize her. There are dark moments and there moments of levity and there are moments of absurdity. And always that reflective, thoughtful narration, pulling things into the light that you might not have articulated for yourself, but that you absolutely recognize.
Mother looked at herself in the mirror while her mother foostered in and out and back again with something else and another thing — do you want that, what about this — tins, bread, stamps, tea towels, iced buns. Tights, purses, magazines. She didn’t want anything. . . . I’d feel such a green twist of anguish looking at her looking at herself in the mirror. Should I look there too and try to catch her eye? I feel like I ought to, there is no one, no one else with her — but what if she quickly looks away? Where exactly would that leave me? She has taken herself off, vaulted just like that. By reflecting her gaze back onto herself she’s flung herself a bridge and everyone else is falling away outstretched in their hats and gloves and scarfs. Caught in between I am torn. She is very high-up on top of a strange kind of tower that has no inside, is all stairways, cloisters, courtyards, spiralling stalagmites of ice, curlicues of coldest mist, and narrow violet streams of the purest water in the world. All is silent here and then a bird.”Checkout 19
Alongside the sublime prose, Checkout 19 can also function as a “recommended reading” list. Lists of all kinds abound in its pages, but most of all there are lists upon lists of books. These are interspersed with the narrative, framed as “I had read” or “I had not yet read,” or “I had not read and still haven’t,” and one gets not only the lists of titles that are important (or not), but also the chance to fit together for oneself what it means to her that at whatever point in her life she is at, she has or has not read some crucial text. Here is just a handful of the authors that she mentions: Ann Quin, Annie Ernaux, Italo Calvino, Renata Adler, bell hooks, Peter Singer, Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Natalia Ginzburg.
I tell you all of these things, and yet I am not even remotely doing this book justice. I laughed out loud while reading much of it, and at the same time it stirred something deeper. Claire-Louise Bennett is truly a wonder, and, as the title says, I will follow her anywhere she wants to take me.
Plot isn’t what keeps me turning pages: it’s fearless, original, sentences.”Claire-Louise Bennett, interview with Independent.ie, August 2021