Faber &Faber, £8.99, 342pp. £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Country Life, By Rachel Cusk
Friday 21 October 2011
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.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 2 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 3 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 4 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling