Book review / Driven to distraction by mother's little helper; The Country Life by Rachel Cusk, Picador, pounds 15.99

Penelope Lively welcomes a modern twist to the governess's tale

Surprisingly, the au pair does not seem yet to be a significant figure in 20th-century fiction. But this is a role rich with promise - the nearest modern thing to the 19th-century governess. She has the same opportunity for detached observation of an alien and potentially menacing domestic set-up, while herself providing a further dimension of enigmatic challenge. In the tradition of the genre, she must be not so much an unreliable narrator as one who is patently holding something back. She has walked into a baffling situation, but the reader is also teased by her own circumstances. What has brought her to this?

So here is Rachel Cusk flying a kite for au pair/governess literature and nicely abiding by the requirements. Her protagonist, Stella Benson, is nothing if not opaque. She quits job and husband, writes a chilly letter to her parents saying she wishes to cut off relations, and unaccountably takes a job as au pair with the Maddens, a family equipped with rolling acres, an Aga and stone pineapples in front of their mansion.

Stella's ignorance of country life is such that she seems never to have seen a field of wheat before. She is fazed by everything - summer heat, flora and fauna and, most of all, by the Maddens themselves: manic father, histrionic mother and the initially prickly disabled 17-year old son who is to be Stella's particular charge. Meanwhile the reader is being driven distracted by Stella, who is the most peculiar young woman. She is 29 but with a mindset so ponderous that her reflections seem to spring from another age. "The day ... held no promise of nourishment other than what I might procure for myself ... some article of shame would provide a bitter chaser for my sickened palate". She is self-absorbed, introspective and bleak in the extreme. Woven into her narrative are hints that all is indeed not quite as it seems.

Why does she have that name? Sure enough, in due course she picks up a book by the writer Stella Benson, the title of which sends out a hefty signal. The climate of the novel is a curious mix of oppressive and intriguing. Stella's stilted language conveys a Mad Hatter's tea-party impression of the Madden household as the story moves in slow motion through the days. A focus of tension is the fact that a driving licence was a condition of the job; Stella can't drive and must surely be rumbled, sooner or later.

The scene in which, coached by the now conspiratorial disabled boy, she drives him to his day centre, is a splendid cliff-hanger. This mundane activity is another fictional black hole, one realises. The literature of driving surfaces only in exaggeration: Accident; Crash.

More Maddens arrive on the scene. The extended family is a spectacularly unappealing array. But by then Stella herself has become a nightmare au pair. She is accident-prone beyond belief. She falls downstairs, she vomits on the lawn, she tracks melted tar across the carpet, she floods the kitchen floor.

In one chaotic sequence the opening of a fridge door sets off a chain of events which ends with her pitching drunk into the swimming-pool. Her detachment from the ordinary requirements of life is such that she has arrived without enough clothes and has no money because she has thrown away her cheque book.

Stella's fecklessness seems at odds with her ponderous and indeed elderly thought processes. There is a certain hectic comedy in her progress from mishap to disaster, but she comes across less as a comic character than a perplexing and frequently maddening one. But there are hidden explanations for her behaviour. If the ending seems a touch indecisive, after the adroitly paced narrative with its sequence of vigorous scenes, we are by then so affected by Stella's self-destructive progress that a glimmer of hope comes as welcome relief.

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