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Checkout 19 review: Thoughts unchecked by convention in an authentic mind map of a life in writing

Independent.ie logo Independent.ie 15/08/2021 Estelle Birdy

Checkout 19 Claire-Louise Bennett Jonathan Cape, €13.99

Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly acclaimed 2015 debut Pond defied genre classification and thus it is with this, her beautifully observed second offering. Is it an essay collection? A novel? A short story collection? The author herself has previously said that she is happy to remain uncategorised.

Part autofiction, part stream of consciousness, Checkout 19 (the title refers to the supermarket till operated by the teenaged narrator) is broken into seven distinct sections or chapters. Often stylistically reminiscent of Joyce, the woman at the centre of the book a writer allows her mind and words to flow freely, as unfettered by convention as Bennett herself.

Sometimes speaking as two people, the narrator looks back on her life in literature, her reading, her influences, the formative incidents of her life. Some of these reminiscences are viscerally poignant. Particularly where the narrator considers the beauty and drudgery of being female.

She describes life as a schoolgirl with stark imagery of periods and ego-ridden teenage boys. “I stood at one of the spotless white sinks and held my skirt under the cold tap and watched as the blood came streaming out of the pleats and swung around the plughole in beautiful swirling plumes. I always liked being in the girls’ toilets during lesson time. It was nice to be on my own and to see my face there in the mirror with nothing but clean white tiles all around me.”

The writer’s imagination is ever present. As the book’s lead character washes blood from her school skirt, she envisions herself as a nun, washing the wound dressings of Italian soldiers. When a beloved teacher takes her and her fledgling stories under his wing, she imagines his day-to-day life when she isn’t present. Later, she relates the tale of Tarquin Superbus, the hero of a story begun many years before and improved and updated as she looks back on it.

She lists the books she had read at various stages in her life and the life of Tarquin’s tale, tracing the influences in her own work. “…I would have been the exact same 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…”

Beautiful prose aside, this book is challenging, discombobulating and downright confounding. We often seek to pigeonhole, to neatly describe books, but Checkout 19 won’t allow that. It has no narrative arc, no plot structure to speak of, and yet it is very absorbing. The narrator’s thoughts jump and repeat and yet we stay with her throughout.

This is a refreshingly authentic mind map of a life in writing. Not one for those who want a clear and entertaining storyline, but intriguing nonetheless.

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