“A straight-up celebration of life” – Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett #GoldsmithsPrize2021

IMG_1Nov2021at195514This is a book about books, and a book about a girl, a book about a girl and (her) books, and stories, and storytelling, the stories she tells, her own story, which is a story about books and a girl and how there’s no real knowing where one ends and the other one starts.

Which is to say this is, sort of, a Künstlerroman, or the story of an artist’s (a writer’s) coming into her own as a writer – and in this case, as in most cases where writers are concerned, that makes it, foremost, a story about a reader. If you’ve read Bennett’s Pond, you’ll know she treads the line where fiction and nonfiction, essays and stories, blur and blend, where chapters/sections do and don’t interrelate, where the overall impression is both extremely precise, in terms of scenes, and cumulatively impressionistic, because Bennett isn’t overly concerned with teleology or grand narrative arcs.

Now, Checkout 19 is somewhat more integrated in this sense – there’s a loose chronology, a clear particular character who moves from her school days into adulthood – but it’s no more linear than its predecessor. This time Bennett loops round and round, childhood into adulthood, back to sixth form, back to adulthood, back to childhood, circling in particular around a few key scenes: she draws a picture that becomes her first story; she writes and revisits a Borges-like fable about a library and its undeserving owner (‘Tarquin Superbus’: was there ever, anywhere, a better name than this?); she reads and rereads A Room With a View; she goes to Brighton, buys a skirt. There is a logic to this, and it relates to two singular experiences (no spoilers), and if I were to get all academic right now, I’d talk about Freud and memory and repression and return. I won’t, but the gist would be that the apparent grand discursiveness of the overall narrative here is in fact tightly constructed, and that it’s all about trauma and the formation of the self, the stories we absorb and tell and don’t or can’t tell and how that makes us into the folk you see (or read) today.

But, you know, it’s also a book about books, and for me, and other bookish sorts, especially bookish sorts of the female persuasion, Checkout 19 also works as a hell of a reading list. Imagine getting to know somebody by way of extensive lists of the books they read at particular ages, and hearing about how all that went down with their friends and boyfriends and how said boyfriends policed said books (girls can’t read Sexton, one tells her, girls can’t be allowed to read Plath). If you (like me), like her, read Elaine Showalter as an undergraduate and had your mind blown open (and made enraged), you’ll want to read this too; if you can’t credit why people love Burroughs but have little time for Anais Nin, you’re with your people here. This is a straight-up celebration of life lived through, facilitated by, enhanced by books, and it’s a glorious celebration of the genesis of stories (other stories, of course). It’s also joyfully, dirtily, bloodily feminist: we hear about the narrator’s periods just as we hear about her deep-dive into literature. This is a book about becoming: a reader and writer, yes, but a woman reader and writer in particular. This is all books and bodies, a glorious intermeshing of the two, a smashing back together of the mind/body divide, and a hell of a read as well.

Any Cop?: A funny and rapid and disorienting ride and a worthy contender for this year’s Goldsmith’s Prize.

Valerie O’Riordan

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