Rachel Cusk is fascinated by silence. About five years ago she announced that she had given up on fiction. A prolific writer, she had by then published seven much-praised novels and three memoirs but, she explained, she was done with both genres. The immediate cause of her writing malaise—what she called her “creative death”—was her painful separation and divorce from the father of her two children, and the response to the book that she wrote about it.
Aftermath was published in 2012, and Cusk’s exploration of her anguish—her insomnia, her inability to eat, her depression, as well as her reflections on the gender divisions within marriage—proved enormously controversial. The book was praised by readers and reviewers for its honest and unsentimental account of the emotional ruins of her relationship and her struggle to regain her autonomy, but it was attacked, just as often, for its “self-obsession.” In effect she was condemned for not being sufficiently interested in her husband’s feelings. One particularly vicious review castigated Cusk for the exalted terms in which she described her experience of divorce (including allusions to Greek tragedy) and dismissed her as a “peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish.”
In the aftermath of Aftermath, Cusk explained to the Observer critic Kate Kellaway, she feared she was “heading into total silence.” Fiction now seemed to her
fake and embarrassing. Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous. Yet my mode of autobiography had come to an end. I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry.
Cusk took the silence she feared she was doomed to and did something startlingly creative with it, in the highly acclaimed Outline trilogy. All three novels are organized around the “absent” voice of the narrator—a novelist named Faye, like Cusk a divorced mother of teenagers, who travels to teach creative writing in Greece (Outline, 2014), does up her London house (Transit, 2016), and, now remarried, goes to a writers’ conference held somewhere very like Portugal (Kudos, 2018). The novels are constructed as a string of connected stories, told to her by the people she meets. Faye reports in her own voice the conversations she has, following chance encounters on planes and boats, at extended lunches, in the classroom, and while walking through tourist spots. Toward the end of Outline she meets Anne, a fellow novelist who, like Faye, is suffering the effects of an obscure trauma and who, like Faye, gets into a long conversation with a man on a plane, and then recounts the conversation in detail. The novelist describes herself to Faye as “an imminent absence,” a being given definition only by the stories she hears:
While he talked she began to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.