“Outline” by Rachel Cusk (2014) – book review

Now there’s an odd thing. I wonder who decided on the jacket cover for this book? Was it Faber & Faber who chose to stick a stunning review by “Middlesex” author Jeffrey Eugenides as an almost integral part of the graphics? After reading his glowing critique, you can’t help but feel duty bound to drop any other book you might have been toying with, and get stuck into this, for J.E. is apparently a better person for having read “Outline”…

I’ve read it, cover to cover, and there is indeed much to admire in the technique Rachel Cusk employs here. The protagonist, Faye (and it is true that she is “nearly nameless”, but to save you time and trouble, we find out her nom de plume on page 211 of 249), is flying to Athens to teach a short writing course, but the book is not so much about her and where she is in life at the point of the novel, but a series of novellas almost about the people she comes across and interacts with randomly or in the course of her work. It’s actually virtually impossible to know much about our narrator at all. We are instead entreated to a vision of what frequently happens in our own current everyday lives – in my case that would be chats with unknown people in the queue at Marks and Spencer, or nattering to the person sat next to me at the cinema – in hers, it’s the unnamed “neighbour” next to her on the plane, or her students recounting “something they had noticed on the way here”, or writing a “story involving an animal”.

While I was reading, I did start to wonder whether the Baileys’ Prize judges were set the task of choosing books with interesting narrative techniques, rather than a linear good read – last year’s winner “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” (which have yet to summon up the courage to embark upon) is awash with half-formed sentences which I fear will be almost impossible to digest; both this book and the about-to-be-picked-up “How To Be Both” have chosen highly unusual ways of spinning a yarn…is there a plot afoot?

For I enjoyed this, I truly did, but I didn’t love it. I admired it rather than fell for it, and it did feel more about Rachel Cusk than Faye-the-self-effaced. I confess to being intrigued by this writer – over the years she has not shirked away from hitting out hard, and the equally dauntless Camilla Long was herself awarded the Hatchet Job of the Year in 2013 for her scathing write-up of  “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation”, based on the memoir of a train-wreck divorce. Ms Cusk is a beautiful writer, she captures the essence with fantastically well-chosen phrases that enable us to easily envisage the panoply of characters she introduces us to – but there’s quite a lot (and am sure this is the point) on the inconsequentiality of human life as it plays out. In an interview with Kate Kellaway, the author explains that, post-divorce, “you are chucked out of the house, on the street, not defended any more, not a member of anything…What you have is people, strangers in the street…I became attuned to these encounters because I had no frame or context anymore”. This fits.

And there is a clear move away on her part from the more traditional ways of appreciating literature – quite early on in the book her narrator sees the airplane neighbour discreetly hiding his copy of Wilbur Smith out of view, leading her to cogitate that “As it happened I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even of self-definition – I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another: in fact, if I read something I admired I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all”. No book blogging to look forward to here, then…

Well, I so enjoyed R.C. wielding her barbed sword to great effect in “Arlington Park” that I felt a bit short-changed here. My loss, no doubt, and will try again with “The Country Life”, the winner of the ‘Somerset Maugham Award’ in 1998. Suspect that the forked tongue will be out licking its lips again, and will be happy to report back in due course.

Read in April 2015.

Rating : an admittedly admiring rather than heart-felt 8/10

Shortlisted for the Baileys’ Prize for Fiction 2015, Shortlisted for the Folio Prize 2015

Images taken from here and here.
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7 Responses to “Outline” by Rachel Cusk (2014) – book review

  1. Pingback: Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 – shortlist | Literary ramblings etc

  2. Pingback: “Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction” Longlist 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  3. timpa59 says:

    Great review N. Is a person ‘sat’ next to you in the cinema, or ‘sitting’ next to you? Either way, if it happens to be Ms RC I might be a little wary!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear MrTimPa59, hmmm, I am wondering which way I should have gone – I think a “who” was missing, grammatically??? Anyway, very funny googling to see which way I should have been sat, as it were – found this link (http://www.chicagonow.com/chi-town-mommy-mayhem) : “To the man who sat next to me yesterday at the AMC Theatres. Let me start off by saying you both looked amazing. Dressed in your Sunday best. Your wife in her pumps and fur coat. You in your expensive leather jacket, gold chains, and pinky ring complaining about the cost of popcorn and drinks. I enjoyed listening to you talk about winterizing your boat on Lake Michigan and the lake house you needed to close up for the season and the help you needed to lay off until next summer. What I didn’t appreciate was you discussing this and many other inappropriate topics loudly during the movie.” Guess Mommy Mayhem was sat (or sitting) in the wrong cinema seat altogether !!!! xx


  5. Dom Nozahic says:

    Enjoyed this review; I’ve just finished reading and it sums up quite nicely how I feel about the text, though I appear to have connected to it more than you profess to have done. Either way, it’s a really interesting novel, isn’t it? I think when a text is so obviously interested in its own form as a piece of writing it can be a little off-putting, but I think it results in something really great here.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, also really enjoyed reading your review on social media (especially as a 50+ year old who was born a generation too early to feel completely at ease with it!) – it’s been really interesting for me to observe all these clever uses of narrative technique with the latest shortlist crop on the Baileys’s Prize this year. I do enjoy RC’s use of language, but you are right – I didn’t connect 100% with this book. Have you/are you planning to read “How to be Both” by Ali Smith? Would be interested to know what your opinion of it is. Nicola


  7. Pingback: “The Mountain Story” by Lori Lansens (2015) – book review | Literary ramblings etc

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