Book Review: Delphi by Clare Pollard

DELPHI, by Clare Pollard

Clare Pollard’s debut novel Delphi follows about a year in the life of a London antiquities professor, wife and mother struggling with the pandemic. Some of their challenges include: the possible unraveling of their marriage; the loneliness, confusion and frustration of her 10-year-old son; and her desire to keep her family together against all odds. While the plot is peppered with a handful of specific events – Zoom school, a vacation trip, a Covid diagnosis, a game with a co-worker – Delphi’s main drive is a strange miasmic fear steeped in boredom. You’ve probably experienced this feeling at some point in the last two years.

Pollard’s story unfolds in first-person through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Although I’m fairly certain that the term “autofiction” has been stripped of almost all of its meaning, this novel has the texture and tenor of a certain kind of fragmentary storytelling – including short aphoristic paragraphs and sharp, sometimes funny, distillations that would easily fall through under a popular definition of the term. Our narrator asserts her own individuality through a kind of fleet-footed intelligence that seamlessly transitions from tales of Athena and Ovid to virtual cocktails, watching Normal People, and learning tarot. Pollard is the author of six collections of poetry, and her talent is evident when information and anecdotes unfold with pleasing syntactic turns.

Despite the fact that the first line of the book reads, “I’m sick of the future,” all of the chapter titles have to do with what that future might hold. There is “theomancy: prophecy of events”, “dactylomancy: prophecy by finger gestures”, “videomancy: prophecy by electronic visual medium”, and so on.

The third paragraph subtly establishes what will result in the book’s main plot: “So it is that on a winter’s night I snarl somehow shrilly to my husband: I don’t know if my son will ever reach middle age.” The narrator refers to the pandemic – “It is strange, isn’t it, how the virus doesn’t affect children?” – but also to the climate crisis and that ever-present, fearful feeling that characterizes our present (and this book).

Part of Pollard’s project is to represent our ever-present sense of fear: knowing that there may be no such thing as knowledge, yet constantly trying to see and understand. Her character is trapped in her own head, in her own house, unable to know when or how to get her attention. And so her energy soars from distraction to historical anecdote to concern, impossible to name or comprehend. When tragedy strikes at the very end, it feels almost otherworldly, not least because that moment is so concrete and irrevocable, unlike almost every other moment in the book. It also feels lifelike. How many times have we missed the catastrophes unfolding right in front of us in our distracted attempts to see the future?

I often wish I could read contemporary fiction outside of its modern context, at a time when it doesn’t feel too early and not too high. “Delphi” distils something elusive and unsettling about all the things we can’t quite see or understand in the present moment, even if we only ever look. That feels impressive, part of what good fiction is supposed to do. But the fiction should also show itself as something separate, unfolding its own logic because it exists outside of the time and space in which we are trapped. As much as “Delphi” can observe and capture something about life these days, I’ve still longed for it to be more of itself.

Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel Flight is out in November.

DELPHI, by Clare Pollard | 208 p. | Eager reader press | $26

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