Our feature for today is an author I was recently introduced to. Rachel Cusk is a Canadian-born novelist and writer who spent her early childhood in the United States, and currently resides and works in the United Kingdom. She has written eight novels and three non-fiction books.
Her first novel, Saving Agnes, published at the age of twenty-six in 1993, dealt with themes of femininity and social satire. This was followed by The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997), The Lucky Ones (2003), In The Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), and The Bradshaw Variations (2009). Cusk’s novels are set in an imaginary elsewhere which undermines the constitutions of her characters. Wanting to be a part of something and yet be apart from it are recurring themes in her works. Cusk’s writing is less concerned with how things are, than with what they might be compared to. Her reliance on metaphors and similes feels as if everything is actually something else. One of her skills as a writer has been her means of describing something, and placing it within a context of “something else”. What is transformation? When you imbibe a new identity, do you retain any part of your previous self? Cusk’s oeuvre of literary presentations is subtly comic and coldly ironic. Innocuous moments like hellos, goodbyes, cups of tea, meals, are all minutely dissected.
While simultaneously dabbling in non-fiction, A Life’s Work (2001) and Aftermath (2012) were autobiographical accounts on motherhood and divorce, while The Last Supper (2009) showcased her travels and adventures in Italy, where she was residing for a while.
Among her recent works, Cusk attempted a change in writing style – one that would represent personal experiences while avoiding subjectivity and literalism, and stayed free from conventional narratives. This experiment was reflected as a trilogy comprising Outline, Transit, and Kudos. Referred to as the Outline Trilogy, the trio was well received by readers and critics alike, with Outline (2014) being described as “reading underwater” and thereby “separated from other people”. Outline was one of the top five novels of the New York Times in 2015, and was shortlisted for several prizes. Transit (2017) stood out for it’s brilliant and insightful prose that offered transcendental reflections, and Kudos (2018) has been described as a book about failure that is a breathtaking success; reiterating Cusk as an author who can make words turn to magic. The trilogy has been hailed as a reinvention of the novel, where fiction merges with facts, the structure of the text being a mosaic of fragments.
Cusk, as a writer, has been said to have a painter’s eye for detail, a psychologist’s fascination with human relationships and psyches, and a storyteller’s ability to create more from mundane. Her language offers beauty not as mere ornamentation, but to serve a purpose. Her writing provides an experience to the reader, that goes beyond merely reading a story. She was awarded the Whitbread First Novel Award for Saving Agnes and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award for The Lucky Ones, won the Somerset Maugham Award for The Country Life, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for In The Fold, and shortlisted for the Orange Prize For Fiction for Arlington Park.
Rachel Cusk is a storyteller narrating stories about storytellers. An author who observes people she meets and records their stories. Her novels are stories of students, teachers, publicists, interviewers – regular folks she meets. For those who enjoy experimental writing, here is an author whose oeuvre you should try. A quote from the latest release Kudos, “Sometimes, he said, he amused himself by trawling some of the lower depths of the internet, where readers gave their opinions of their literary purchases, much as they might rate the performance of a detergent. What he had learned, by studying these opinions, was that respect for literature was very much skin deep, and that people were never far from the capacity to abuse it.” Cusk’s writing aims to remind us that there is so much mystery within so called normality, that causes the reader to resist the pull of fantasy. Pick up one of her works if you haven’t read any yet. If you have already read Cusk, which were your favorite books from the writer?