In Murray Bail’s 1998 novel Eucalyptus, the narrator describes the action at the center of the book as ‘a mosaic of necessary slowness.’ This is a declaration of form on Murray’s part, an attempt to say: this pace is deliberate, and what’s more, be patient. While Rachel Cusk makes no similar declaration in Transit, it would perhaps be appropriate to say that this novel too is a mosaic of necessary slowness. It is a work built of conversations, and predominantly one-sided conversations at that. Cusk passes storytelling duties where possible from her first person narrator, Faye, to whomever Faye happens to be talking to. She talks to an ex-lover, a building contractor, a hairdresser, an old friend, neighbors, a fellow-panelist at a writing conference—we listen to these people talk, at length, at and around Faye. It is from within these one-sided conversations that a picture of Faye begins to emerge.
In Transit, as in its predecessor, 2014’s Outline, Rachel Cusk’s narrator is named only once in the book. She is divorced, a mother of two boys, and, in this installment, she has recently bought a run-down house in London, which she intends to fix up and live in with her sons. A friend, a writer, has advised her: “It is better to buy a bad house in a good street than a good house somewhere bad. Only the very lucky and the very unlucky, he said, get an unmixed fate. The rest of us have to choose.” She has taken this friend’s advice and her new home is in far worse condition than even she had anticipated. Her ex-husband, whom we never meet, lives nearby enough that the children can go back and forth between houses. There’s really very little information about the narrator’s life beyond this, the bare bones.
The book begins with a spam email from an astrologer, followed by Faye’s recounting of a recent incident with a real estate agent. In these two interactions, and in the advice from the narrtor’s writer friend, the novel’s thematic concerns are laid out. The book’s DNA is contained within its opening pages. Towards the end of this opening section, Cusk writes,“It was the astrologer’s remarks about cruelty that had reminded me of that incident, which at the time had seemed to prove that whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us.” The narrator then proceeds to pay the online astrologer for a reading. She is keen to find out about “a major transit due to occur shortly” in her life. Fate and real estate are the twin and damaged hearts of this book.
Shortly after moving in to her north London fixer-upper—her bad house in a good street—the narrator meets an old lover, Gerald, outside the gates of the local school as he drops his daughter off. It is with this chance meeting, in which old betrayals and regrets are referred to if not tackled head-on, that a piecemeal portrait of a woman in a mode of rebuilding is begun.
A later conversation with her friend Amanda further highlights Faye’s low-key obsessions: construction and deconstruction, stasis and transit, partnership and solitude, love and independence. Amanda has found herself in a relationship with the building contractor, Gavin, who was hired to work on her property. Gavin has moved into the property with her, and construction work has stalled. Here is Amanda explaining her frustrations to Faye:
There was an element of fantasy, she went on, in the idea of male involvement: even someone like her, someone militantly self-sufficient and practical, someone prepared to roll up her sleeves if she had to, had fallen for the idea of being looked after. Gavin saying he would work for love rather than money had thrilled her and relieved her almost in the way that women used to be thrilled and relieved by a proposal of marriage. But love, she had been made to understand, was ultimately intangible: the thrill was all in her own head. Money would have got the work done: as things stood, she couldn’t see where it would ever end.
Faye’s own renovation works are similarly ongoing and frustrating, but in hers we sense, if not a determination, then an acceptance that at some point the period of re-building, of transit, will come to an end.
Transit’s subtlety is admirable and its deepest meaning and ‘aboutness’ is as difficult to pin down as a memory triggered by a passing waft of fragrance. So why then does one feel, after reading Outline and Transit, as though a great intimacy has been achieved? Cusk is a master of arm’s-length intimacy, of creating the illusion that one has been taken into her narrator’s deepest interior life when really, the door has been shut, or perhaps kept only slightly ajar, the entire time. Cusk comes off as a master observer and a more reluctant self-examiner, at least where her literary output is concerned. Her divorce memoir, Aftermath, and her motherhood memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, left her exposed, vulnerable and criticized in the press for her honesty. With these latest novels, she has developed a form that suits an understandably more cautious approach to putting herself out in the world. The result is artful, precise, beautiful and, of course, because this is Rachel Cusk, vividly honest. She hasn’t stopped writing about her Self. She has simply discovered a new way of doing so.
This review by Helen Chandler (@chandlerhelen) appears in print in issue 38 of Meridian, Winter 2017
Transit is published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in January 2017