We Took Out All the Books We Could

Checkout 19 by claire-louise Bennett. new york: riverhead. 288 pages. $27.

The cover of Checkout 19

IN AN ORDINARY CLASSROOM, ON AN ORDINARY DAY in an ordinary English childhood, a girl points at a box of books and says, “Look.” Look, she says, and another girl gets up, retrieves one of the school-owned hardbacks, and pushes it into her chest: “It was your idea.” The first girl is the narrator of Checkout 19, never named, and the second is one of her classmates; the high school moment is being remembered by the narrator, embroidered even in the remembering. Look, the grown-up narrator explains, “no child says ‘Look’ without meaning for something to happen. A child’s eyes are instinctively and never-endingly searching for some little thing amongst it all that just like that upends the whole lot.” Not just a child’s. Look, the narrator says earlier in the book, at the color of first-day period blood, “crinkle-oozing” out of her in a “shade of red I’ve been looking for in a lipstick since forever. Neither too dark, nor too bright. Not too pink not too brown not too orange.” Look, she says, don’t we lift our eyes each time we turn a page when reading, and doesn’t that make us feel “instantly youthful and supremely open-minded”? Look, she says, at all the things—“telephones, tea towels, slippers, irons, iced buns, umbrellas, candlesticks, air fresheners, photograph albums, gloves, fifteen-denier tan tights, knitting needles, manicure sets”—her grandmother tries to offer her at the end of every visit. (The tan tights kill me; my grandmother gave me tights too.) Look, the narrator says, offering page after page of funny, daring, poignant, accurate, truthful little things that upend the whole lot.

I suppose you might call Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel Checkout 19 a bildungsroman if you cared about that sort of thing, but the more interesting experience is to follow the pointing finger. It has this in common with her first book, Pond, a series of linked sketches in the same beguiling voice, of which my favorite was “Postcard,” a squelchy, sexy paragraph written (I think) to a lover, which spins out of the sight of a bra hanging off a chair by its strap. In Checkout 19, the narrator is going back over moments in her life that made her want to write, thinking about the things she wrote and why she wrote them, as well as about what she read and when and why and very often how (in a silver maxi skirt, under a tree: Bennett is always making us see that reading is something bodily). She also wonders about the way her reading has affected how she’s tried to live, and to interpret some of the things that have happened to her.

Remembering like this isn’t neat, and needs sentences that can come close “to what life is like, and what it feels like to live,” as Bennett said on the UK publication of Checkout 19, in order “to create a book that sort of replicates . . . going back over things, and never really arriving at a definitive place or interpretation of what happened, because I don’t think we ever do.” The narrator talks and talks, not separating her thoughts into paragraphs, but letting them run on and through and circle back and break off. I wonder if to some this would sound anxious, like rumination, but it’s not quite that, or always that. It’s more like someone trying to be precise and truthful, and teasing herself in the attempt. As the novel begins, she’s thinking about when she first got a library card: “First of all of course we took out all the books we possibly could. Which was probably eight books. It’s always either six books or eight books or twelve books. Unless it’s a special collection of books of course in which case it might only be four. And to begin with we took out as many of them as we could. That’s right. We’ll take this one and this one and this one, this one, and that one too. And so on. Yes.” The point she’s leading up to has already been made on the previous page—“we like one book,” as in you can only read one book in any one moment, and that’s surely enough—but here we see the garrulous process of coming to that knowledge, the laughing recollection of the younger, perhaps nerdy, narrator, who knew exactly how many books she was entitled to take out. It is a very agreeable narrative voice, by the way, as likely to use a hackneyed phrase like “a silly business” as it is to say “abated” instead of “died down.”

Julien Nguyen, Julian the Apostate, 2017, oil on wood panel, 36 x 24". © Julien Nguyen/Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Julien Nguyen, Julian the Apostate, 2017, oil on wood panel, 36 x 24". © Julien Nguyen/Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

It’s not as if you can ever separate form from content, but in a novel about novels it seems especially important that the sentences are pleasurable—and that this pleasure, too, has something to say about how a novel works. There are a few times in Checkout 19 when you are barreling along, laughing, looking at the things the narrator wants you to look at, and you come upon a sentence, a short one perhaps, then realize you’ve come upon something harder, stranger, more mysterious than you expected. Something that’s maybe not about books at all. Perhaps the narrator remembers so much about library allowances because, in the house she grew up in, her mother’s books were few and kept behind glass, sharing a shelf with the gravy boat. One summer, she read one of them, A Start in Life by Alan Sillitoe, lying in the back garden, and when her mom came home from work, she too came out in the sun and listened to her daughter read the funny bits out loud. “She would lie there smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes on the sun lounger. . . . Laughing. Laughing and flicking ash down onto the patio. It was a long time ago. It was actually. It was one of the last summers.” The narrator moves on to trying to remember (unsuccessfully) what even happens in the Sillitoe novel, but I was still thinking about what might have happened to the mother. Did she die? Did her daughter cut her off? Did she get sick? This feels true to life too, like the unexpected stab of grief (or love, or both) surging up from nowhere to change the whole tenor of the routine things you were doing until then. I don’t think we do find out what happened to the mother in the end. That also feels right, as you don’t know it’s the last summer while your mom is still ashing on the patio. That the reader can be surprised in this way changes the book for her: she must pay a different sort of attention; she must listen closely. Our participation affects the book too: if we decide the mother is dead, we may be reading an elegy; if the mother was abandoned, we may be reading a tirade.

I’ve been saying that this is a book about books and writing—and there are quotations (Annie Ernaux, Ingeborg Bachmann, D. H. Lawrence) at the head of every chapter, so I’m not imagining things—but as it proceeds it’s less about reading and learning and more about writing and living. The narrator’s childhood “Look” impulse gathers into a desire to write a story about her teacher in the back of her exercise book—which her teacher discovers, and encourages. By her twenties, she is working on an intricate, elaborate story about a long-ago bellelettristic man of elegance, Tarquin Superbus, in Vienna and/or Venice, an analogy for her own life that also isn’t one. Toward the end of the book, she is tackling events in her own life that aren’t easy to put into prose of any sort, even with the liberty from convention Bennett has established. What is the right way to describe unwanted sex with a friend? Sex that bothered you a bit, and then didn’t? Or bothered you because it didn’t bother you as much as you (and he) thought it should? These are bits of life that don’t fit together neatly, that can’t be slotted into a rousing narrative. They shift as you try to write them down, and change again when you read over what you’ve written. You overlay what happened with what you thought later about what happened, and then something else happens that overshadows it all.

There are some books she actively avoids because she doesn’t want them to overwhelm her: “I am not interested in reading books written by women who killed themselves. I think it is very likely that I will one day kill myself and if I do I want it to be all my own idea. I don’t want to lose myself in their shadows their darkness might swarm in and drench mine so that I won’t be able to tell them apart and what then?” She is teasing us again, I think, teasing our expectations of literary women. But she is sure that she does not want to be subsumed in any traditions, even the glitter-dark ones, especially the glitter-dark ones. She wants to live on her own terms. One of the things Bennett has said she likes about Checkout 19 is that it contains traces of her mother and both her grandmothers, and yet is something new, something she herself has made. All her own idea. What’s amazing for the reader is to see a book so alive, so lively, so aware of what it is made of and yet so itself, so itself really that it eludes review, and ought simply to be read. “We quite enjoy it, don’t we,” the narrator says near the end, “when a woman feels and behaves in ways that don’t have any obvious accord with her outward aspect. We do. Why not. Yes, why not. Keep them guessing. That’s right, keep them guessing.”

Joanna Biggs is a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine.