“When all is illuminated and the shadows have been cleared, where does the creature within go and what becomes of its need to daydream?” writes Claire-Louise Bennett in her latest book. Part self-fiction by a young writer, part philosophical encounter with the inherent and misinterpreted darkness of humanity, and part subtle but raging feminist outcry, “Checkout 19” is nothing short of astounding. Bennett’s stream-of-consciousness prose draws the reader in like a maelstrom, taking her into the mighty “unmapped realm” of the writer’s vivid imagination in which she creates both her characters and her own identity. The novel masterfully shows us why we need stories to live and blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Simultaneously, it illustrates the dangers of getting lost in fantasy and protecting one’s inherent darkness at the expense of ignoring the darkness of the real world.
On the surface, “Checkout 19” is a coming-of-age novel about a young writer from the English countryside. Told retrospectively, Bennett depicts the events, people – real and imagined – and books that shaped and inspired her to live a life dedicated to reading and writing. Despite the simple premise, the novel defies easy constraints or classifications in every way. Bennett frees his prose from grammatical norms and limitations, and his narrator’s mind from fully formulated thoughts and conclusions. The realistic and digressive thoughts of its anonymous narrator – who alternates between “I”, “we” and “she” – take the reader on an exhilarating journey through Florence, suppressing classrooms, Tangier and burning libraries in a work unbound by space and time.
The liberating formal aspects of the novel are intrinsically linked to its message of literature as a transcendental gateway to deeper human consciousness and imagination. Throughout the book, the narrator reveals that this deep part of the mind is a place that defies definition: she sometimes calls it “the soul of the world”, sometimes an “alluring, unmapped realm”, but accepts more often than not we can know nothing. for sure from such a place. Philosophy aside, the most obvious reason for the elusive nature of the human mind and imagination is the fact that it is certainly different for each individual. A main characteristic of the inner spirit of the novel’s protagonist is “darkness”, a term to which she does not attach any negative meaning, but rather regards it as an indispensable source of human creativity which should not be separated from “lightness”. Bennett’s reflections here recall the recent psychological concept of “toxic positivity,” which views the suppression of emotions that traditionally carry negative associations, such as sadness or anger, as unhealthy and suffocating.
As the narrator grows and develops this indefinable sphere, her imagination increasingly serves as a perfectly private and secret place to escape the hurtful limitations of the real world. When the narrator muses, “I sometimes wonder if my penchant for abstruse ideas was actually a form of passive aggression,” she attributes to her stories a nature that is both surreal and socially critical. She feels trapped in the school and town where she grew up, where she is ridiculed for her unconventional thoughts. Even the University of London, where she later studied literature, imposed a canon on her and thus limited her creative spirit.
Most distressingly, the violence and discrimination she faces because of her gender simultaneously stifles and fuels her creative ingenuity. A book about electroconvulsive therapy used on women in her family sparks an “inherent, ancient, bloodthirsty anger” in her. Isn’t it perfectly obvious, she thinks, that a culture in which women are “put down, undermined, ignored” and “misinterpreted again and again” is driving them crazy?
The narrator herself has to fight for her position as a writer, especially with her romantic partners: “Women can’t stand poetry, seemed to be Dale’s view… Poetry tears you apart, pisses you off, and a man can be doing shit and still living because no one really cares, not even the man. It is then all the more satisfying when she realizes that, despite her misogynistic surroundings, beauty and weakness are not the defining characteristics of a woman, and that her irrepressible talent lacks neither ferocity nor of spirit, nor of resilience. “Checkout 19” alternates sharp but subtle observations of microaggressions and allows the protagonist to tackle them in an often unsatisfying internal way. Even after being sexually abused, she uses literature and writing as a remedy instead of confronting the abuser. This takes nothing away from the novel’s feminism, but rather realistically illustrates the consequences of a victim-blaming culture.
As the story progresses, the narrator gradually comes to terms with what she has tried to circumvent at all costs: reality. So far, Bennett has drawn the reader into the vivid imagination of the protagonist, praising the stories as a sweet escape from the dark facts of existence. She could easily have ended the novel on this note. Instead, adapting to the novel’s rejection of black-and-white representations, the author holds up the mirror to both its protagonist and the reader by reminding us of the challenges and darkness of reality. Surprised, the reader realizes that he has fallen in love with Bennett’s addictive prose, just as the protagonist lives only through the literature she reads and writes. Merging with her creations, she is consumed by her literary work and loses her grip on reality, and the reader does not realize this until it is almost too late. Bennett’s conscious reflection shrewdly warns of one of those dangers that inevitably accompany the benefits of storytelling.
Leaving many of its issues and questions unresolved, “Checkout 19” is a multi-layered, rewarding novel that will reverberate through the reader’s mind and push them to find their own way of balancing imagination and reality, lightness and darkness.