When my daughter was in preschool and I started taking her to various birthday parties and playdates to which she would be invited by her friends I always felt awkward and out-of-place. I was oftentimes the only mother at these gatherings who had a career and an only child. When I would confirm that my daughter is an only child I would get a look, a comment: “Oh you only have one child.” I felt as if having a single child made me a mother, but not enough of a mother to be considered a part of their club. And after my daughter was born I remember various family members asking not if we were having more children but when. Of the various people portrayed in Cusk’s Outline, I identified most with Angeliki, a writer of contemporary women’s fiction, who describes her marriage and her reasons for having one child with her husband. Because of my experiences with how people react to my decision to have an only child ,Angeliki’s story and her words particularly resonated with me. Her remark at the thought of having more than one child is startlingly honest, “I would have been completely submerged.”
In Rachel Cusk’s first book of a trilogy that is loosely autobiographical, a recently divorced author named Faye is traveling to London from Greece where she will teach a short writing workshop. While on her travels she encounters various people like Angeliki who share the stories of their lives, their loves, their identities and their perceptions of the world. It is through their stories that the author starts to realize how her own identity and perception of the world have had a dramatic shift since the dissolution of her marriage. On the plane ride to Athens, she meets a man who was raised in Greece but was educated in English boarding schools. She simply refers to him as “her neighbor” throughout the narrative as he proceeds to give her the details about the passion, progress and dissolution of two of his marriages.
While in Athens, Faye meets others—a writer, a publisher, a fellow teacher, her students—with whom she has lengthy conversations. She goes on a boat ride and a swim with her neighbor from the plane where she observes another family having an outing. As she notices the ways in which father, mother and children interact with one another in a mundane setting Faye observes: “I was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.” This simple yet profound statement signifies that the discussions with her friends and her acquaintances are continually reshaping and reforming her own identity and her own views of the world as a single woman, a single mother, and as a person that is no longer half of a couple.
Cusk’s writing is philosophical and meditative and she uses her talents to make simple settings appear unique and intriguing. An airplane ride, a swim in the ocean, dinner at a seedy Greek restaurant are all seen from a new point-of-view and become vivid backdrops for Faye’s conversations during which people share the most intimate details about their lives. Her description of the atmosphere on the plane also appears to be a commentary on the various lenses through which we view others:
The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward. The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshy and real, their detail so unmeditated, so impersonal, so infinite.
One subject, in particular, that runs throughout all of the conversations is marriage and family life. Cusk’s book could have easily turned into a typical narrative oftentimes found in contemporary women’s fiction that presents one lamentation after another condemning marriage and lauding the single woman as a heroine of strength and fortitude despite the horrible personality flaws of an ex. Cusk’s approach to writing about marriage is more intelligent and philosophical; she understands that life is complex and she reaches beyond the usual, fictional narrative to underscore these complexities. Faye offers little detail about her own life to her various acquaintances, but when she does voice her opinions during theses conversations they are thought-provoking and profound. She says to her neighbor on the plane, “Among other things, a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”
Cusk’s novel is a meditation on life, love, relationships and our multilayered and ever-evolving perceptions of these things. It will be very interesting to see how she continues her conversations about these topics in the next book of the trilogy entitled Transit.
About the Author:
She lives in Brighton, England.