Fierce, She Got Outside the Moment

Transit

by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pp., $26.00
Harry Watts
Rachel Cusk, Brighton, England, February 2012

Rachel Cusk has been a prominent novelist for over twenty years in Great Britain, since her first book, Saving Agnes, won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1993. She has since published eight more novels, including her new book, Transit. Until recently, however, it is for her three memoirs that she has been chiefly known in the United States.

The first, A Life’s Work (2001), is a witty and unsparing—some might say harsh—examination of the demands of new motherhood. The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009) chronicles her family’s two-month sojourn in Tuscany: Adam Begley, reviewing the book in The New York Times, likened it to “a sour, highbrow pastiche of Peter Mayle’s books about Provence.” Her most recent personal chronicle, Aftermath (2012), was written after the breakup of her marriage. Frank, personal, and fierce in its critique of the underlying dynamics of the institution of marriage, the controversial book earned her passionate supporters and detractors both. She herself said, in an interview with Kate Kellaway in The Guardian, that “without wishing to sound melodramatic, it was creative death after Aftermath. That was the end. I was heading into total silence—an interesting place to find yourself when you are quite developed as an artist.”

Cusk, in this interview, speaks of frustration with the novel form, and of a concomitant sense that her autobiographical forays were finished, even though “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character—these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art,” she said. As a writer, her response was to forge a new form for her work, a sort of semiautobiographical novel in which the first-person narrator is largely absent or erased, serving chiefly as the recorder of the lives—or more accurately, the stories of the lives—of others.

Transit is Cusk’s second novel in this new vein, following the highly acclaimed Outline (2014). A third novel is expected to complete the trilogy about a writer named Faye’s experiences following the breakdown of her marriage. Outline, set in Athens where she teaches a summer writing course, recounts Faye’s encounters with friends, acquaintances, students, and an unnamed Greek man she meets on the plane from London, who takes her out on his boat and shares with her his complicated family history. Transit, on the other hand, takes place in London, where Faye is renovating the former council flat she has purchased, to make a new home for herself and her two young sons. Here, too, the reader encounters the life stories of former lovers, of her friends and relatives, of her hair stylist and the builders working on her flat—but in Transit, glimmers of Faye herself emerge more clearly than they do in Outline, perhaps in part because in London—as opposed to Athens—she has a place in…


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