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.

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