Nothing permanent; THE TEMPORARY by Rachel Cusk, Macmillan pounds 9.99

Christina Patterson
Saturday 12 August 1995 23:02
Comments

IT'S ONE thing for a young, talented Oxford graduate to write about the life and thoughts of a young, talented Oxford graduate. It's quite another to tackle the musings of an inarticulate, vain young secretary, an Essex girl in all but the fact that she's actually from Kent. This is the brave enterprise taken on by Rachel Cusk in her move from the culturally familiar territory of her award-winning novel Saving Agnes to the barren terrain of transient office life in her new one.

Francine Snaith lives in Kilburn, temps in the City and is obsessed by her beauty and the effect it has on others. Fiercely snobbish, she's delighted to meet, one Friday night, two posh young men at a private view. When the inevitable phone-call comes, she's disappointed to find that it's from unexciting Ralph, rather than his sophisticated friend Stephen. Nevertheless, she embarks on a loveless relationship that proves to be both a culture clash and a study in the mechanics of manipulation. Ralph soon finds himself trapped by a pretty face and an empty head as Francine manages, in one of the oldest plot twists of all, to get pregnant. The rest of the novel depicts the tortuous evolution of the relationship as Francine discovers the dizzying delights of power.

It's a bold move for Cusk to attempt to enter into the consciousness of a man and one that, on the whole, pays off. Ralph's loneliness and insecurity is sympathetically conveyed, as is his growing fear, bewilderment and irritation. Francine, however, is another matter. She is, among other cliched responses, disappointed by the red wine Ralph offers her, having "vaguely imagined them having cocktails, with a lustrous cherry speared by a parasol". The picture that emerges is less than convincing, almost a parody of a brainless tart. This simplistic portrayal leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling that snobbery is not limited to Cusk's characters.

The most striking aspect of Cusk's work is her idiosyncratic style. At a time when most young writers seem to be opting for terse, Carveresque minimalism, she flies the flag for the long word and the long sentence, stringing sub-clause after sub-clause in a style that's self-consciously anachronistic. At its best there's something of the epigrammatic neatness of Jane Austen; at its worst the verbose pomposity of John Major. None of this seemed to matter too much in Saving Agnes, where Cusk's old-fashioned wordiness served as an excellent vehicle for the irony that pervaded the book. The problem here is that the humour has gone. Without this sparkling lightness of touch, it feels dense, affected and over-written.

Rachel Cusk is a gifted writer, with perception, insight and compassion. She's good at giving concrete expression to abstract emotions and at the nuances of self-consciousness and embarrassment. All these qualities are present in this book, but they are over-shadowed by weighty analysis and minute detail. "This is not Ulysses," you want to scream as Ralph takes three pages to get out of bed. Rachel Cusk can do much better.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in