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Book Review: Rachel Cusk: The Slow Construction of a Writing Life by Cynthia Newberry Martin

Last year I read Arlington Park and discovered a writer new to me – Rachel Cusk. She was born in Canada in 1967, grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in England. Arlington Park is her most recent novel. Although I thought it was a little brusque in its movement between characters and a little haphazard in its structure, I also thought the writing was outstanding. Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again. Instead I decided to read all her books in chronological order.

It’s like watching a house being built – seeing how a writer develops over time.
Saving Agnes, the foundation, was published in 1993. It won the Whitbread First Novel Award (now the Costa First Novel Award). The novel is kind of chick-litty in subject matter, but after all Cusk would have been only 26 when it was published.

In Chapter 15, Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man Greta had met. The conversation sends Agnes into her head. “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths. Its proximity frightened her. She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”

Although it takes Cusk too many words to say what she has to say, it’s a great beginning for a writer. The novel contains some engaging images. Picture, for example, a row of teenagers sitting on a bench like crows on a telegraph wire. It also contains some interesting lines like “She’d never known loneliness until she’d had company.” And this combination of an intriguing idea and an image to match: “She had changed, she knew, but she didn’t quite know how or when. Like an old car, the addition of new parts over the years had left little of her original material, but her form remained unaltered. Could she, she wondered, still be said to be the same person?” This theme, the Russian-doll aspect of life, is one that will continue to fascinate Cusk over the years.

The Temporary, Rachel Cusk’s second novel, was published in 1995. Although the writing is uneven, there’s improvement. The author is using fewer words, and in places, she goes deep. The following paragraph provided the title for this essay:

He groped for a date and remembered then that it was still only February. The year stretched before him in all its unavoidable detail, the hundreds of days and thousands of hours which he would endure as if something more lay at their end than mere repetition. He wished that he could be tricked, as others seemed to be, by the close of each week, seeing in their false endings the imminence of some sort of conclusion, like a soap opera. He wondered why he had never fallen into step with this pattern of days, comprehended in the helpful clarity of a week’s tiny eras – birth, growth, productivity, decline, dormancy, regeneration, played out beneath the celestial presence of longer phases of weather – a system that might ease the slow construction of his life.

The Country Life, published in 1997, is Rachel Cusk’s third novel. She is spacing them like children – one every two years. As opposed to The Temporary, the writing is solid throughout. The first sentence tells the reader that the narrator is supposed to take the 4 o’clock train from Charing Cross to Buckley. Cusk then does a good job of propelling the reader forward by supplying all sorts of details regarding the departure (although I wanted even more) without stating what Stella, the protagonist, will be doing when she arrives at this new destination or what specifically has caused her to make the journey. From the first page, Stella is an intriguing character. Late in the novel, she says, “I don’t know what love means. If it’s just a feeling, then it can stop. I don’t see the point of trying so hard to preserve it.”

About Cynthia Newberry Martin

  • Kimberly Davis

    A great and honest review of an up and coming author. Thanks!

  • Natacha

    thanks for your advice, i read it and i really apppreciate
    another book from Rachel Cusk :
    Saving Agnes