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'Checkout 19' encapsulates a lifelong love affair with the magic of books


Claire-Louise Bennett's "Checkout 19" is the novel of a lifelong love affair between a narrator with no name and love interests that range from Aristotle, Anais Nin and Anne Frank to Iris Murdoch, Sidney Sheldon, "The Silence Of The Lambs" and "One Hundred Years Of Solitude." In fact, the books don't even need to be opened. Let's ask Claire-Louise Bennett to give her voice to her unnamed narrator.

CLAIRE-LOUISE BENNETT: (Reading) It was entirely possible, we realized, to get a great deal from a book without even opening it. Just having it there beside us for ages was really quite special. It was actually because we could wonder - couldn't we? - about the sorts of words it contained without getting ourself locked up into a ridiculous state. With just one book in the grass beside us, we sat there wondering about the sorts of words it contained in a really tranquil and expansive kind of way that, in fact, enable distinct images to emerge all of their own accord from who knows where. That was nice. It was, actually.

SIMON: Claire-Louise Bennett, author of the previously highly praised short story collection "Pond," joins us now from Tipperary. Thank you so much for being with us.

BENNETT: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Books really are a - let me be careful in my choice of language - sensual item for your narrator, aren't they?

BENNETT: Yeah. That's a really interesting way of putting it. So many people have sort of focused more, I suppose, on the literary aspect of her engagement. But there is definitely something about the physical presence. Maybe that's something to do with not growing up with lots and lots of books around her. So they do take on a special kind of presence and energy. There's a scene when she opens the corner cabinet and looks at a few volumes that her mother has tucked away. And it's almost as if they're almost alive in some way. The spines of the books kind of crackle a little bit or something, you know? And she's almost afraid to take one of them. So there is definitely that aspect to it.

SIMON: What does she find in books, do you think?

BENNETT: She finds so many different things as time passes because she kind of grows with them. What's important about that connection is that in her immediate surrounding, maybe, she isn't finding a whole lot that's inspiring for her or that really sort of maybe connects with her inner world. So they offer her a place maybe where she can - I don't know - feel maybe a little bit more at home or a bit more excited about what life might have to offer.

SIMON: Does the narrator find the company of books more congenial than the company of people?

BENNETT: I guess there are challenges - right? - with interacting with people. And you can't just kind of close them and put them aside and pick them up when you're ready for them again. You don't have those kinds of choices. So in that sense, I think - and often she might feel, particularly in her early years, slightly let down by people. And maybe there's difficulties in communicating with people. And I think this is maybe true because, you know, she starts to discover her own, I guess, creative ability - a certain talent for writing - when she's younger.

And it's one thing to, you know, kind of read. And people might say, oh, you know, you've always got your head in a book. But if you start writing then - that's kind of a bit different. And it doesn't really have much of a place in the world where she's living, which is pretty working-class. I mean, the outlook is pretty much you got a job, and you get married, and you have children, and you don't move away too far and all of this kind of thing, you know? So she has this other thing going on inside her, I suppose. And like I said, because it doesn't have any real place in this world, she kind of has to keep a bit of a secret. So that makes it kind of difficult in a sense to communicate with people, because in a sense, you feel like you're not really being yourself. So a little bit of a disconnect starts to occur.

SIMON: People of my generation, even perhaps yours, worry about youngsters becoming too immersed in video games, confusing life online and real life. Does your book remind us maybe we get a little carried away by that, that there are perhaps even some of us who found our constant companion and respite in books?

BENNETT: I've come across, like, reviews and stuff where they say, oh, you know, it's a book about books and a love of books and stuff like that. But there is for sure, like, an element of it where it's looking at kind of the dangers in a way of taking on, I don't know, ideas, emotions, particularly when you're of an age where maybe you haven't had your own experiences. So you're almost emulating something before you have your own, yeah, experience of it, I suppose. And we can see that obviously going on between the narrator and her friend at university, Dale.

They're both really in their own sort of universes as regard like fiction. She's got her head full of Forester at this point. And he's kind of, like, full of Burroughs and Bukowski. And there's a scene with them where things just don't work out particularly well. And she says, it's - we just weren't on the same page, you know? And they're so susceptible, I think, and so in need of some sort of shape and form and direction to it - all this, like, passion that they're feeling, all this existential confusion they're feeling. And books and music and art and, yeah, I guess video games - they kind of maybe help or hinder or distort or - you know, they're there. We interact with them. We take them in. You know, we're quite porous as entities, you know? We take stuff in for sure.

SIMON: In this age of downloads, what does a book still give us?

BENNETT: Well, as you described in the start - you were just is picking up on the kind of the sensual, the tactile qualities of it. I don't know. There's a lovely sense of quietness about it, but it's not tethered. It's not plugged in. And I spent the weekend - we had an insane storm here over the weekend. Well, nothing compared to what you get, I guess. But it was pretty bad. And I was tucked up in bed reading this book. And it's such a lovely thing to do. And I love it because I think of all the people going back in time who have done that same thing.

It's just not my experience. It's an experience. It's almost like an archetypal experience. It's an ancient experience, almost - like the holding of a book, the turning of pages, you know, the feel of them, the closing of it. I love all of that. And I think that is very, very different. And, you know, like reading on a screen - you do all kinds of things on a screen. You do the internet. You have Zoom conversations. You do work. And it's great to be able to switch that off. And it's a very different atmosphere, I think, that occurs than when you open a book. It's separate. It's a different thing. You're giving it its own space, you know? And that's very important, I think. It's a different reading experience, therefore.

SIMON: Claire-Louise Bennett - her novel "Checkout 19" - thank you so much for being with us.

BENNETT: Thank you so much, Scott. That was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.