Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

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The Independent Culture

In an interview following the publication of her most recent book, In the Fold, Rachel Cusk commented: "I remain fascinated by where you go as a woman once you are a mother, and if you ever come back."

Arlington Park, Cusk's sixth novel, continues this theme, its interconnecting stories set over the course of one day in a middle-class, middle-England suburb, where fury and despair writhe beneath a surface of comfort and respectability. No cosy, escapist read, this, its very opening sentence strikes a note of gothic foreboding: "The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky."

Inside their similar houses, the female residents of Arlington Park, having ingested prosperous sobriety, are slowly going off the rails. Clever Juliet imagined a solitary, lauded life for herself but has ended up teaching at the very girls' school which launched her into a supposedly glittering future. Her only pleasure, so snatched it seems almost a vice, is the weekly literary club held in the school library, where she seeks to impart to her pupils that love is really a form of revenge and all men are murderers. In the eyes of obsessive-compulsive Amanda, going about her daily chores, an ordinary butcher's shop becomes a sinister killing machine; a visiting child's red ink scribbles on her perfect white sofa the presentiment of some appalling catastrophe.

Solly, eight months pregnant with a fourth baby, feels alienated, transient in her own home, her lamented femininity buried beneath myriad layers of reproduction. Maisie, uprooted from an exhausting yet vibrant London life, rages against this same legacy, inherited from her own parents: "She blamed them not only for the parts of herself which they had damaged, but damage, wreckage wherever she saw it." Only upwardly mobile, tactless, practical Christine, with whose awkward, awful dinner party the novel culminates, is resistant to self-hatred. Fond of a drink, of shopping in sterile malls, she somehow holds the framework together, a pedestrian Mrs Dalloway for the suburban age.

Cusk portrays a menacing world where even inanimate objects bristle with enmity. A battle is ensuing in which tiny children are lined up on opposing sides, the daughters already wearily assuming the mantle of female disappointment, the sons in league with fathers variously stereotyped as smug, lazy, ignorant, sexist, and eternally remote.

This obvious polarisation seems too easy a tactic for a writer of Cusk's perspicacity. She has her detractors. Her relentlessly elegant prose can be seen as pretentious (certainly she likes to remind the reader of her credentials by introducing words such as "asseverated" and "seigneurial"); her characters are monstrous, their world-view narrow and intense. Yet she is, along with Helen Simpson, one of the most intelligent current interpreters of domestic life. And even in the dire world of Arlington Park there is hope. Juliet has an inspired, emancipatory moment when she cuts off the long hair that is both her signature and her burden; Solly finds her individuality restored under the soothing influence of Paola, her beautiful, independent Italian lodger.

Cusk writes fearlessly of untrammelled anger; boredom, and small, significant epiphanies. Everything, in fact, which constitutes daily life in all its minutiae and magnificence.