First published in The White Review No. 14, July 2015.
In Rachel Cusk’s eighth novel, OUTLINE, a character named Anne, who has just suffered a violent attack, explains why she considers it important to speak about her experience. ‘If people were silent about the things that had happened to them,’ she asks, ‘was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?’ Cusk’s work — fiction and non-fiction – is imbued with the same defiant honesty to which her characters aspire. Her non-fiction books – especially AFTERMATH, a raw, elliptical response to her 2009 divorce, and A LIFE’S WORK, a memoir about the bewilderment of first-time motherhood – have attracted vitriol from readers who balk at the candour with which she writes about personal subjects; praise from those who admire her determination to question herself, her refusal to conform to established female roles.
Cusk’s career has, on paper, been conventional and glittering. Her 1993 debut, SAVING AGNES, won the Whitbread First Novel Award when Cusk, like her characters, was fresh from university; her third novel, the Wodehouse-esque comedy of manners THE COUNTRY LIFE, earned the Somerset Maugham Award. She was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, and her latest novel, OUTLINE, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s and Folio prizes; soon after we meet, its cover could be found adorning posters on the tube. Her work seems to follow the trajectory of a life: four years on from A LIFE’S WORK, Orange Prize-shortlisted ARLINGTON PARK (2005) featured an array of desperate housewives, suburban mothers who contemplate child-murder as they negotiate coffee-mornings and dinner parties. In THE BRADSHAW VARIATIONS (2009), Tonie has had enough, and goes back to work, guiltily leaving her husband at home with their daughter. By OUTLINE, the protagonist is divorced, her children grown: Faye is in Athens to teach a creative writing course, mirroring the details of a British Council tour Cusk herself embarked on in 2012. Far from being self-revelatory, Faye is an unknowable narrator, her name only revealed towards the novel’s end: OUTLINE accumulates the stories she hears from the people she encounters – her neighbour on the plane, her lunch companion, her students – but never tells her own.
Many of Cusk’s female characters find themselves listening rather than talking; Cusk, however, having gained a reputation as a chronicler of the personal, is constantly pressed to talk about herself, yet simultaneously chastised for doing so. A review of AFTERMATH criticised the book for not revealing enough juicy details about the divorce. Indignant – and imperceptive – reviews of A LIFE’S WORK accused her of hating her children. Her retaliation is subtle and satirical: she is currently writing a version of Euripides’s MEDEA for the Almeida Theatre. We met in an airy North London gastropub the morning after the general election; amid the chaos – of the country and of her home, beset by builders – she was measured and thoughtful, eloquent in her answers.