Rachel Cusk

Book cover

I read this book after a strong recommendation from a friend, and since finishing it had an interesting extended discussion with the same person about it. I liked it but am not sure I recommend it as unreservedly as he did.

The book was very compelling and I often found myself wanting to read it. Cusk uses an extremely effective technique of quasi-free-indirect-discourse, where she is inconsistent about using quotation marks when recounting conversations, resulting in occasional rich and interesting misdirection about which character is giving voice to a particular idea. The book gave me a feeling that I associate with reading Murakami–the writing itself is excellent, and there are tantalizing but somewhat sketchy intimations of the un-plumbed depths of characters’ souls. Both certainly also convey a palpable sense of loneliness and isolation. But after finishing it (much like with Murakami), I feel less than certain how much depth is really there, and how much it is an effective illusion. Upon reflection, I think that Cusk (in this book anyway, the only one I have read by her) and Murakami trade on a similar technique, of presenting us with characters who are seemingly contextless–cut off from history and from relationships other than those directly explored in the book. I think this can have a powerful emotional effect on the reader (when done by a skilled writer) because it makes it fairly easy to read oneself into the shoes of the character, and thereby “import” all of the depth of feeling that grows from the richness of our own lives into the world of the story. (As indicated by this novel’s title!)

It’s probably unfair of me to describe this approach to writing as illusory depth, and it would be fairer for me to say that (at this point in my life!) I prefer a more traditional novelistic style. Earlier in this review, when I mentioned Murakami, I started to write that this particular style that I’m discussing goes back at least to Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro.” But I stopped myself because actually, upon reflection, “Kokoro” is only superficially similar. Soseki also writes with a profound sense of isolation and loneliness, but in “Kokoro,” the full back-story is laid out eventually–so Soseki gives you that “outliney” feeling at the beginning, but ultimately takes responsibility for coloring in the full story.

I’m aware, in writing all of this, that “Outline” is itself the first book in a trilogy, and it may well be that the later books fill in the background richness that I currently feel is missing!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars