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.
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