Hearing the confessions of strangers
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-