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

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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.”

The Country Life was a delightful book to read, full of strong images, such as “…I turned off the light, closed my eyes, and forced myself, as one would force the head of a man beneath water to drown him, into sleep.”

Rachel Cusk’s fourth book, published in 2001, is a memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. Cusk wins my heart when she admits, in the Introduction, that it would be contrary to the nature of motherhood to write a book about the subject without explaining how she found the time to write it. The answer is that her partner quit his job to take care of the children so that she could write her book about taking care of the children. This memoir is one woman’s experience of motherhood. Unfortunately, Cusk was attacked by readers and reviewers as being selfish and immature instead of being praised for honestly portraying the transition from taking care of self to taking care of a child. Cusk described it as “a period in which time seemed to go round in circles rather than in any chronological order.” The baby developed colic. Cusk became sleep-deprived. It wasn’t pretty or easy. However, at the end of three months:

I see that she has become somebody. I realize, too, that the crying has stopped, that she has survived the first pain of existence and out of it wrought herself. And she has wrought me, too, because although I have not helped or understood, I have been there all along and this, I suddenly and certainly know, is motherhood; this mere sufficiency, this presence.

I recommend this memoir to every woman contemplating, or in the throes of, motherhood. My only objection is that perhaps a better title would have been simply On Becoming a Mother, as these pages are limited to the initial weeks and months after the baby is born, to this transition time of becoming a mother, which the author so clearly does.

The Lucky Ones, published in 2004, is Rachel Cusk’s fifth book, and with it, Cusk begins a period of experimentation. In this book, it’s with form. There’s a Contents page, which announces five sections, each of which could stand alone as a story. In each section, also, there’s a passing reference to at least one character in another section. With a lovely circularity, the last section ends with, I believe, the only reference to the main character in the first section. This would be a wonderful collection of linked stories. But the book, on its cover, calls itself a novel. I don’t think so. Still, the author’s writing throughout is even better in this book than her last. In the final section of The Lucky Ones, Cusk goes into that depth of truthfulness that characterizes a work of substance. Her skill in crafting images to send the words on their way is evident in the following paragraph:

It was in the mornings that Vanessa most often suspected the existence of a problem. In the rumpled dawn camouflage of her bed she would open her eyes and think of the coming day and sometimes, just as when sometimes she turned the key in the ignition of her old Honda, nothing would happen. She lay there, paralyzed by the image of what she had both to construct and then to dismantle before being returned to this same bed, like a book being returned to its shelf, intact and yet somehow depleted of her information.

If I were not reading all of Rachel Cusk’s books to look at how her writing develops over time, I would not have finished her sixth book, In the Fold, published in 2005. With this novel, Cusk continues to experiment. Moving away from what she has done so well in the past – women and interior monologue, this book is narrated by a man and filled with dialogue. Perhaps an important step in a writer’s development is to try something different. It establishes a reference point: You do that better than this. And then you can go boldly forth.

    There are other opinions: In the Fold was long listed for the 2005 Booker Prize. The name of the country home where most of the action takes place is Egypt – no explanation given. As to why the narrator's friend lives with his father rather than his mother, the answer, which refers to Egypt, is: “This is our home. It’s the place that matters, not the people in it.”

    Arlington Park, the book that started this journey, was published in 2006 and shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. It is well written and digs deep into truth, into that “inarticulable darkness.” It’s about women – real and flawed. It’s about marriage. It’s about not only the lives we plan to live and choose to live, but the lives we end up living. In an article written in 2005, Cusk said, “I remain fascinated by where you go as a woman once you are a mother, and if you ever come back.” This is the book she wrote after making that statement. The first sentence: “All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.” The falling of rain appears like a refrain throughout the book. The rain falls on everyone in Arlington Park. It falls on all of us. The novel is divided into ten unmarked sections: 1 – the rain fell; 2 – Juliet; 3 – Amanda; 4 – Christine, Maisie and Stephanie at the mall; 5 – Solly; 6 – in the park/the rain had stopped; 7 – Juliet; 8 – Maisie; 9 – Christine; and 10 – party at Christine’s with Juliet, Maisie, and Maggie. In the first section on Juliet, she is listening to a recording of a song by Ravel:

    The sound of it brought tears to Juliet’s eyes. It was the voice, that woman’s voice, so solitary and powerful, so – transcendent. It made Juliet think she could transcend it all, this little house with its stained carpets, its shopping, its flawed people, transcend the grey, rain-sodden distances of Arlington Park; transcend, even her own body, where bitterness lay like lead in the veins. She could open somewhere like a flower … open out all the petals packed inside her.

    The first time I read Arlington Park, I was so taken with Juliet that I didn’t want to leave her to switch to Amanda. This time, it didn’t feel like a brusque change, but felt right. Because it’s not just about one of us; it’s about all of us.

    A new book, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, the memoir of a three-month family stay, is forthcoming from Faber and Faber later this month.

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About Cynthia Newberry Martin

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

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