Why you should read Rachel Cusk (if you’re brave enough)

Claudia can hear herself speaking, but she can barely concentrate on what she is saying. She tries to keep her eyes on [her 13 year-old daughter] Lottie’s face but they keep straying — magnetised, astonished — down to her skirt. ‘Did you get that today?’ she says finally. Lottie looks down at herself, as though to check they are talking about the same thing. ‘Yes,’ she says.

It is a pink skirt with a ruffle around the hem. It comes down to Lottie’s knees. The pink is a candyfloss pink. The ruffle has been badly stitched. It is both too big for Lottie and too small, sagging around the hips and straining at the stomach. The material is so cheap that Claudia can see Lottie’s underwear through it. It is a child’s skirt, the kind of skirt that Claudia might have bought for [her younger daughter] Martha, but on Lottie it is without doubt the least flattering item of clothing Claudia has ever seen. ‘It’s lovely,’ Claudia says. ‘Well done.’ Lottie seems pleased. ‘I thought you’d like it,’ she says.

This is a scene from Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations, and if you can read it without wincing you’re a lot tougher than I am. But as well as being an unflinching observer, she’s also, sentence for sentence, one of the best writers working today, both on the micro scale of a simile — He finds three tiny pairs of headsets, unopened, coiled in their little plastic sacks like embryos — and the macro survey of contemporary life:

Thomas goes through his cupboards and finds box after box of obsolete junk. Cables, computer parts, a whole case of grey plastic cartridges, sealed in their airtight transparent wrappers. The printer they were designed to fit no longer exists, and there is no other printer compatible with them. Yet they will last forever.

It comes to him, the physical feeling of his London office, the big steel and perspex building with its wires and blinking screens and shrilling telephones, the bitter smell of plastic and electric light, the hushed grey spaces, the sealed windows muffling the world, the make-up smell of his secretary Samantha and her synthetic clothes, everyone so chemical-smelling and costumed, and the way people spoke, language itself made artificial, so that you found yourself looking at their teeth, their eyes, to remind yourself there was a human being in there.

But just when you’re thinking “Christ, this makes Revolutionary Road look like Carry On, Jeeves“, there are moments of extraordinary compassion. Here’s Thomas again, looking after his youngest daughter’s friend Clara, who is always ill at school and has just spilt orange down her shirt:

He sits Clara on the end of the bed and tentatively removes her shirt. She is entirely passive, letting him undo the buttons with her hands hanging limp at her sides. He opens the front, and though his heart stalls momentarily at the sight of the raw surgical scars that score the length and breadth of her quail’s chest his demeanour remains perfectly calm. He finds a clean shirt and does up the buttons with feather-like fingers.

That “quail’s chest” is a touch of genius, beautifully complemented by “feather-like fingers”, and The Bradshaw Variations is full of such tiny, perfect touches, which make the book entirely gripping even as the narrative slips away and out of your grasp: Cusk’s stories seem to happen in the corner of your eye.

There’s even less of a traditional narrative in Cusk’s previous book, The Last Supper, an account of three months that her family spent in Italy. My guess is Faber perked up no end when she announced it: after all, there’s no more guaranteed best-seller than a warm-hearted, middle-class travelogue. But, this being Cusk, that’s not exactly what you get:

The hot, heartless world meanders past the windows: the train stupidly follows its monotonous southern impulse. There is a nun sitting quietly in the corner of our carriage. She is small and plump in her dove-grey habit … She has a broad, flat face and a high, rounded, forehead like the forehead of an elderly china doll, with the close-fitting band of her veil at the top. She seems so distant from the experience of pain, so dry and plump and spotless, so indefatigably neutral, with her wooden crucifix as chunky as a child’s toy: she sits like a mannequin in the corner, old and virginal, looking out of the window with small, pale-blue eyes. What does she know of loss?

Where most authors go to Italy and find pizza, funny foreigners and nostalgia, Cusk has written a deeply felt examination of family, forgetting and the idea of home, as unsparing of herself as she is of her fictional characters. It’s also a book of art history, and of our relationship with the past. It’s a deeply strange, rather troubling book, but spiked with unaccustomed sunlight; occasionally she even allows herself to be funny, as when she’s beginning to learn Italian:

How could a scarpa be the same thing as a shoe? If I went into a shop and asked for a pair of scarpe, I would surely be handed a brace of woodland fowl, or two fish with particularly bony spines … There is a way, I don’t doubt, of doing justice to the shoe … The Spanish for shoe is zapato, which I think of as a very pointed kind of dancing shoe, while the French chaussure is a sombre gentlemen’s slipper made of brown leather. The scarpa is as yet indistinct. I suspect it has very high sharp heels, and is the sort of thing that might be used as the murder weapon in an Agatha Christie novel.

The book ends with extraordinary eeriness in a hotel in Northern France, leaving you with the feeling that Cusk’s time in Italy was not so much an escape as a breath held for three months. It’s uncanny, upsetting and beautifully written, and will leave you wanting more, or to run right from the room. And that’s why you should read Rachel Cusk.

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