Rachel Cusk’s new novel “Transit” follows a divorced woman in London as she encounters an ensemble of characters on her way to building a new life.
by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 218 pp., $25
When I first read Rachel Cusk’s novel “Outline,” I wasn’t sure what she was up to or how she was doing it. All I knew was that I didn’t want it to stop.
“Outline” felt as genuinely new as Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness innovations must have felt in the 1920s. It was a first-person narrative in which the narrator stayed almost entirely out of sight. Instead, like some Scheherazade-in-reverse, she coaxed stories from everyone she encountered while traveling in Greece. As she did so, she found herself “beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”
Cusk’s new novel “Transit,” the second book in a projected trilogy, uses much the same method. The same narrator, a divorced writer named Faye, is now back home in London, where she recently purchased a house in dire need of repairs. She’s reconnecting with city life, after some years spent with her two young sons in the country. She may even be about to embark on a new relationship.
But just as “Outline” did, “Transit” deflects almost all its focus away from its narrator. Instead it’s the people Faye encounters by chance or appointment — a writing student with a peculiar fixation on American artist Marsden Hartley, an old boyfriend who’s now a married father, an Albanian housing contractor and his Polish assistant, and half a dozen more — who take the spotlight.
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Along with telling their own stories, they tell the stories of people in their lives. All these tales have a stranger-than-fiction twist to them. They also, while grounded in humble quotidian details, lead to larger questions concerning freedom and fate, appearance and reality, choice and passivity.
This sounds a bit solemn, but plenty of dry humor spices the book. Faye’s friends are always saying something unexpected: “It was Diane’s view that bringing up a completely undamaged child was in bad taste.” Cusk’s descriptive gifts, while cool in tone, are sharp, whether she’s capturing the essence of childhood in five words (“a formative period of powerlessness”) or contemplating the looks of a friend.
“Amanda,” Faye notes, “had a youthful appearance on which the patina of age was clumsily applied, as if, rather than growing older, she had merely been carelessly handled, like a crumpled photograph of a child.”
Faye’s name appears only once in both “Outline” and “Transit.” The novels’ titles, too, appear just a single time in their seamless flow of text. That may sound like a gimmick, but Cusk’s story-invention powers are so rich that the format feels as fresh the second time around as it did the first. It also hints at Cusk’s extraordinarily precise orchestration of narrative effects.
Faye’s circumnavigation of herself as she dips into the lives of those around her amounts to a kind of enchantment. Her guarded essence emerges from her interactions with others who all have fascinating anecdotes and viewpoints to share — even if they’re unsure why they’re sharing them.
“I like it that you ask these questions,” says a woman at a party, from whom Faye has extracted a bizarre account of family estrangements. “But I don’t understand why you want to know.”
“Transit,” more through implication than open statement, indicates why.