A curious and exhilarating affair, Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett is my stand-out read of the year to date. In this extraordinary novel, Bennett takes the voice of an unnamed female narrator, leading the reader on a stream of consciousness trip from her school days to the present. The twist is that her life is viewed through the prism of the books she’s read and how they have informed her as a woman, a reader and ultimately a writer. It’s intense as hell but the reward is a read touched with brilliance and originality.
The opening chapters give us remembered glimpses of our narrator’s childhood and we learn early on of her fascination with the potential of unopened books. The very act of borrowing six or eight titles from the local library triggers a tizz, as while reading one book, she’s wondering incessantly about all the wonderfully engrossing words that may be contained in the others.
At home, her mother’s books ‘glowered like intricate secrets inside the corner cabinet,’ while her grandmother’s collection of gruesome Victorian murder literature emits its own spine-tingling frisson. Childhood tips into angsty adolescence, igniting a writing spark, and when Idolised teacher, Mr Burton, takes our narrator’s stories home to read each weekend, his encouragement feeds her diffident desire. She imagines her stories being in Mr Burton’s actual home, a part of her crossing the boundary into his personal life. A dawning realisation.
‘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.’
Stepping into the adult arena of work and relationships, our wannabe writer takes us with her into the books she’s read (and attempting to write,) the ideas ignited and thoughts provoked when turning the pages, ‘Yes, that is how I have gone on living.’
Don’t trouble yourself searching for a plot, there really isn’t one. Just roll with the thoughts and formative moments of a woman for whom literature is both nourishment, consolation and reflection.
I loved the sharpness of Bennett’s authorial eye, her brilliant dissection of English secondary school life made me wince with recognition, as did her youthful foray into ‘male’ literature, wanting to know about the kind of men who ‘hung about foreign ports…swilled brandy around a crystal glass tumbler…undressed another man’s wife,’ unlike their women, who were omnipresent but ghostly, with their eyes eternally fixed on something else.
Thankfully, women writers are waiting in the wings. When Bennett introduces us to them, they come thick, fast and gloriously, Doris Lessing, Eudora Welty, Angela Carter, Anna Kavan, and a handful of others I hadn’t heard of but will definitely explore (Ann Quin, Silvina Ocampo, Marlen Haushofer). I accepted them greedily, as an unexpected gift, along with lines that give us such exquisite imagery as a fallen eyelash like ‘a small and perfect scimitar.’
An unconventional and dazzling novel.
Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett is published by Jonathan Cape, 224 pages.