Hear­ing the con­fes­sions of strangers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In Out­line, the first novel in Rachel Cusk’s un­fold­ing tril­ogy, the nar­ra­tor vis­its Athens and en­coun­ters there sev­eral char­ac­ters who of­fer her, with un­usual candour, the sto­ries of their lives.

The nar­ra­tor is a writer, re­cently di­vorced, and she has two sons. We learn lit­tle more about her past, and this oc­clu­sion ob­scures her yet ex­tends the com­plex­ity of her char­ac­ter.

Faye — the nar­ra­tor’s name is men­tioned only once — is es­cap­ing her own life even as she meets friends, col­leagues and strangers, and lis­tens to their pointed tales about fam­ily and mar­riage, some of which ges­ture to­wards her own mar­i­tal break­down.

She is de­scribed, if ab­stractly, by other peo­ple’s sto­ries. Out­line is struc­tured as a se­quence of con­ver­sa­tions. For the most part these are ren­dered in long pas­sages of in­di­rect speech, which pre­vent the nar­ra­tive be­ing choked by the back-and-forth of straight di­a­logue. In terms of form, if not sub­ject mat­ter, Out­line is a sub­stan­tive de­par­ture from Cusk’s pre­vi­ous work.

Cusk is Cana­dian-born, Lon­don-based. Among her three non­fic­tion books the most no­table is A Life’s Work, a stark pre­sen­ta­tion of early par­ent­hood that con­fronts the de­monology of “good moth­ers” and “bad”. The more con­ven­tional Ar­ling­ton Park, per­haps the best of her ear­lier nov­els, tells the story of five women in an outer Lon­don sub­urb, each of them con­flicted about fam­ily life.

The themes in that novel — cru­elty, inequal­ity and self­ish­ness, es­pe­cially within a mar­riage — re­main among the au­thor’s con­cerns, but the metaphor­i­cal lan­guage that dis- tin­guishes Ar­ling­ton Park has been toned down. Where that ear­lier novel re­lied on third-per­son vis­i­ta­tions into the minds of its char­ac­ters, Cusk’s later work is de­signed so each char­ac­ter, through Faye, speaks their mind and tells their per­sonal his­tory.

Now we have Tran­sit, and with its pub­li­ca­tion it’s clear that Cusk’s tril­ogy-in-progress is one of the finest and most com­pul­sive novel cy­cles in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture (along­side the books of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Fer­rante).

Again, the novel com­prises a se­ries of sto­ries that var­i­ous peo­ple re­late to the nar­ra­tor. Once more, the con­tem­pla­tion of char­ac­ter is a large part of the novel’s ap­peal.

Here, Faye has re­turned to Lon­don, to a run­down flat in her old neigh­bour­hood, where she es­tab­lishes a new life for her­self and two sons. We first hear from an ex-boyfriend, Ger­ard, who pre­tends to have for­got­ten cer­tain de­tails about Faye. Ger­ard is highly san­guine about the past. He tells her: “Maybe it’s only in our in­juries that the fu­ture can take root.”

We hear, later, from a hair­dresser, a man tired of seek­ing plea­sure, who ex­plains why he took in his nephew with autism. A home­sick builder, Pavel, tells Faye about the house he built for his fam­ily in Poland: a modernist-style box in a for­est. With this project com­pleted, his life falls apart.

The nar­ra­tor hears also from stu­dents, friends, and other writ­ers: each chap­ter in­tro­duces a new char­ac­ter. A pho­tog­ra­pher, Jane, ex­plains her ob­ses­sive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a dead painter. Some char­ac­ters ask Faye for ad­vice; they of­fer up their sto­ries; they un­bur­den them­selves. It may re­quire a cer­tain sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief to ac­cept that so many peo­ple would ea­gerly share their most in­ti­mate sto­ries with Faye.

But here, again, the novel ges­tures to­wards some of the nar­ra­tor’s qual­i­ties with­out al­ways mak­ing them clear: Faye, we sup­pose, has a tal-

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