Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness

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by Rachel Cusk

Though Cusk has written eight other books in-between, this new novel shares a lot in common with her first two books. There is a vagueness about it and a distinct lack of story, but there is also some beautiful writing.

The narrator is an English divorcee writer (a little autobiography peeking through perhaps?) who goes to Greece to teach a writing class for a week. That’s pretty much the whole story. She speaks with a series of people, some friends, some random strangers, and recounts their stories. She has a knack of getting people to open up to her but reveals very little about herself. And yet she does seem concerned with the truth and questions the honesty of those she speaks to.

The title appears to refer to the series of sketches of people’s lives that the narrator presents, but a quote from towards the end of the book suggests another reason:

“She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her…a sense of who she now was.”

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Another vague drifty one

Saving Agnes
by Rachel Cusk

I picked this up while in the US on holiday. I had read and enjoyed Cusk’s second novel The Temporary, which it turns out has rather a lot in common with this title. Possibly too much.

Agnes Day (which is a great name for a heroine) is drifting. She doesn’t really care about her job, feels distant from her (somehow still active) love life and even her friends. She lives with two former schoolmates in a house that is on the brink of being condemned, thanks to a large crack in the wall. This crack acts as a literal (and slightly over-obvious) representation of Agnes’s inner life.

Agnes is one of those heroines who frets about everything, is convinced everyone else is normal while she is abnormal and reminisces fondly about her teenage years when she came close to suicide because at least she was more decisive back then. I did not warm to her. Which is perhaps odd because I’m an over-thinker myself, but I like to think I’m also practical and Agnes is certainly not that. She seems to expect some magical change to just happen to her life, rather than going out and making it happen. She’s also one of those annoying people who take up causes without really learning about them. Even when challenged about this she doesn’t recognise her own failure to engage. And she’s self-absorbed, taking some serious jolts to notice the people around her.

There is an art to creating such a vague, drifting character. For much of the novel Agnes talks about her current relationship and her previous one interchangeably, so that it can be unclear which one is the subject, though what does gradually becomes clear is that Agnes’s attitude to relationships is unorthodox.

Cusk is…wordy. Her prose is beautiful but obscured by long, convoluted sentences:

“Agnes lay in bed waiting for the telephone to ring, believing as she did that the former event would precipitate the latter. Her faith, though gritty, was, she knew, ill-founded, attempting as it did to harness the perversity of the universe and make consistency where there was essentially none. By taking upon herself the task of second-guessing ill-fortune, she was in fact violating the creed of her anti-faith, which, if its principles were to be understood, would presumably visit her only at her own inconvenience…” [This goes on for two full pages before we learn whether or not the phone rings.]

I remember liking The Temporary but with very similar reservations – it also is about a disaffected woman in her 20s drifting, hating London (there is no love for the setting here) and being generally self-absorbed. However, the writing is good and Agnes is completely realistic (lesser characters aren’t quite fully realised but this is actually a believable portrayal of Agnes’s picture of the world).

First published 1993 by Macmillan.
Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1993.