Rachel Cusk's re-published third novel is reminder of just what an impressive writer she has always been. This rustic satire sees Cusk eschewing the clean, cool lines of modern fiction for an altogether denser affair. Billed as comedy, it's sometimes hard to spot the joke in this merciless journey into "the solipsistic cabbage patch" of a young woman's mind.
The novel's narrator, 29-year-old Stella Benson, has just ditched her London life to take off to the small Sussex hamlet of Hilltop. It's here that she has taken on a position with Piers and Pamela Madden to take care of their disabled son, Martin. The last au pair left in mysterious circumstances, and there's something in Stella's recent history that she's anxious to hide. Having purged "the messy spoils" of the past, she now wants to be left alone: "Like a pair of eyes in a jar."
Welcoming Stella to Franchise Farm - a cavernous stone manor house - is aristocratic chateleine Pamela Madden, a woman in her fifties with a "tangled, autumnal foliage of brittle brown and blond hair" and a "veneer of breeding at once impregnable and careless". In a skilfully drawn set of opening scenes, we share Stella's discomfort over the course of the first evening, as Pamela transforms from genteel hostess into barking harridan.
Cusk's loaded sentences can be a joy or a stumbling-block, depending on your state of mind. Stella's every sensation is logged, and every nuance of every encounter calibrated, but it's the kind of analysis that can often make you gasp. Cusk is at her best at capturing the psychological make-up and mannerisms of particularly unpleasant people. Despite first impressions, the maverick wheel-bound Martin proves to be the most sympathetic member of the Madden clan.
Over the course of the novel, Stella proves not to be the demure governess figure we first take her to be. In the increasing summer heat, she takes to wearing skimpy cut-offs, attire that grabs the attention of the men of the household, including the impish Martin, his questionable older brother Toby and the Maddens's farm manager, Mr Trimmer.
Stella's behaviour becomes more risk-taking as concrete details of her personal history start to emerge. The final pages find her dizzy on champagne and attempting to impale Roy, the family dog, with the tip of a picnic-table umbrella, in a novel whose cold comforts are well worth a return visit.