The Bradshaw Variations, By Rachel Cusk

Tonie Bradshaw has been promoted. After years of jostling the demands of part-time work and motherhood, she has become Department Head and rediscovered her sense of ambition, working all hours up in London. Thomas, with tears in his eyes, acquiesces to resigning from his job (albeit only for a year) to become "househusband" and carer for their eight-year-old daughter, Alexa. With his spare time, Thomas begins learning the piano.

Bright characters surround the Bradshaws. Olga, their Polish lodger, is "cheerful as a trumpet", while Thomas's older brother Howard is a brassy, affectionate entrepreneur. His plaintive wife Claudia claims, with an interesting mix of justification and prevarication, that child-rearing has derailed her artistic career. Four parents – Tonie's and the senior Bradshaws – are delightfully stuffed full of prickly opinions and loveless self-satisfaction.

Tonie and Thomas are less well-defined, often appearing untethered from any sense of their own identity, and carried along in eddying notions of authenticity and artificiality. To a large extent, plot in The Bradshaw Variations has yielded to feeling, causing the narrative to meander. The Bradshaws' ruminations by-pass clear, introspective soul-searching, pooling into heavier passages of numinous prose .

After the hard-nosed domestic entropy of Cusk's enthralling novels like In The Fold or her memoirs on motherhood, this is deflating, congesting. The core problem is not the fondness for amorphous pontification, which Cusk is mostly a strong enough writer to carry easily; it's the contrived role and feble, self-absorbed character of Thomas. Why has he resigned? He doesn't pay any attention to his daughter beyond what a working parent would, or clean, or shop, or keep house in any meaningful way. Alexa even takes herself to school.

The stresses of home-making are either overlooked or lost in ponderous rumination. This makes Thomas something of a red herring (or simply a vehicle for Cusk's rather dispiriting dénouement). The Bradshaw Variations offers surprisingly little on the hard questions about parenting or sacrifice. Tonie's multiple anxieties on returning to work and Claudia's vocal bleats on the thorny conflict between personal ambitions and raising kids both ring loudly with interest but, for the most part, are muffled by a thick blanket of rather inconclusive navel-gazing.

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