The joys of Sussex

BY SUE GAISFORD THE COUNTRY LIFE by Rachel Cusk Picador pounds 15.99

This is the story of a disastrous week in the life of Stella Benson, a 29-year-old solicitor. She decides to destroy every vestige of her past; she writes firm and final farewells to her parents and to someone called Edward, and she goes to take up a job caring for a handicapped child in deepest Sussex.

She regards her destination as a place "remote as an Antarctic station, promising neither oxygen nor human life". It proves to be nearly as bad as she has imagined. As for her job, she starts at a disadvantage, as the advertisement she has answered required an experienced driver with an aptitude for country life. Stella fails on both counts, spectacularly.

Within a couple of days, she has choked on a gooseberry pie, been sick after eating ancient luncheon meat, spread tar all over a carpet, killed a pigeon and nearly landed her charge in a pond. A day or two on, she has risked his life again by her terrifying first attempt at driving, stolen a bottle of gin, insulted the cleaning-lady and developed a lurid, striped sunburn that would not have looked amiss on a national flag. She has fought off the advances of a stingy, lustful yokel, and she has been dead drunk every night.

The country life is no picnic. Though hot as hell, it does indeed resemble the Antarctic in that it is a deeply hostile environment, stalked by many a mysterious menace. Franchise Farm, her new home, might have much in common with Cold Comfort Farm, but only a detached self-regard links our Stella with Flora Poste. She brings not order and redemption to the disturbed and alarming rustics, but chaos. Her final debacle, when she brains the Labrador and almost drowns in the swimming pool, drunk again on stolen champagne, results in her miserable exposure as a thoroughgoing imposter and, miraculously, in her salvation. Martin, the paralysed boy who has been placed in her dubious care, saves her bacon and expresses his devotion to her.

The novel is extremely funny, though the humour is subtle and develops slowly. We begin by taking Stella as seriously as she does herself, and we worry that she is risking so much on this doomed venture. We never quite lose this sympathy, despite her increasingly farcical exploits. She suggests that her story could be regarded as an old-fashioned tale in which a plain, deserving heroine endures endless misfortune only to be triumphantly, rewarded for her forbearance - she admits to indulging this fantasy herself. Echoes of Jane Eyre evaporate pretty quickly, however: for a start, plain Jane had the sense to stay sober.

In this, her third novel, Rachel Cusk writes with the fastidious and delightful grace we have come to expect. Her descriptions are satisfyingly meticulous, marked by pleasingly original imagery. For example, when Stella arrives at the station and waits for the well-named Mr Madden to collect her, her suitcases pick her out "like quotation marks"; the ancient stone building that is Franchise Farm seemed "held on the brink of an elegant faint before it sank into the garden's arms"; Mrs Madden's "aura of ownership hung like a great canopy over the very air we were breathing"; a hostile shopkeeper has grey hair "set in a rigid basin of florets, like a brain or cauliflower".

Despite such carefully perceptive remarks, poor Stella, the dark secrets of whose past are only dimly revealed even at the end, is comically absurd. Halfway through, she admits that she is habitually a person "in whose thoughts the insignificant looms large, while the vast and perilous range of realities forms a dramatic but distant vista". All the same, and perhaps because of that, she is a splendidly memorable creation.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?