Arlington Park, by Rachel Cusk

Singing (and dying of boredom) in the rain
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Rachel Cusk's sixth novel begins with rain. It certainly sets the tone for what follows. For the inhabitants of Arlington Park, the suburban setting of Cusk's sixth novel, are an exceptionally miserable lot. Locked in a world of stifling domesticity and suburban aspiration, these are women who gaze at their gorgeous oak floors, and their children, but who can't quite remember the self that acquired them.

Arlington Park, like Cusk's last but one novel, The Lucky Ones, offers a series of interlinked cameos, of characters whose lives brush against each other and occasionally converge. Juliet, the subject of the first, is the most sympathetic of a deeply unsympathetic bunch. Waking up after an unpleasant dream about a cockroach, she thinks about a dinner party the night before and muses on her relationship and her life. A part-time English teacher who once seemed destined for greater things, she concludes that all men, including her loving husband Benedict, are murderers.

Cusk's characters do a great deal of musing, as they bundle their children into their push-chairs or fill up the fridge. Juliet thinks about "the feeling of lead... in her veins" that started as soon as she got the husband, house and kids. Amanda experiences "a feeling of rapid ascent, as though the members of her household were sandbags she was heaving one by one out of the basket of a hot-air balloon". For Amanda, time with her toddler, Eddie, is "like a boulder she had to single-handedly lift". In order to kill some of it, she invites a group of mothers around for coffee. By gaining witnesses to the beauty of her knocked-through kitchen, she hopes to experience something - admiration? envy? - beyond the daily struggle against disorder.

And so it goes on. On a trip to the mall, orchestrated by the hysterically upbeat Christine, a trio of mums try on teenage clothes and take solace in the superiority of their suburb. That night, two of them converge at a dinner-party. Over three-for-two chicken breasts, they offer a masterclass in suburban snobbery, casual racism and middle-class culture clashes. But not, unfortunately, a very convincing one.

Like the rain, which brings to mind Eng lit classes on pathetic fallacy, Arlington Park feels relentless - relentlessly ponderous and relentlessly precious. Cusk can be a wonderful writer. Her descriptions, once you've got used to a style peppered with archaisms - "proximate", "insufficiency" - can achieve a fine poetic precision and her observations are often subtle and astute. There are glimpses of both in this novel, but they are overshadowed by metaphors - of the stage, weight and the microcosmic suburb itself - that are worked to death, characters that verge on caricature and dialogue that's wooden. In the end, we don't believe in the characters, their lives or their blind allegiances to their territory and their tribe.