REVIEW: Karin Schimke
There is little evidence of the narrator of this story of stories. The reader knows that she is a woman, a writer, a writing coach, divorced and that she has two sons. These things are revealed piecemeal and through conversations with the people she meets on a trip to Athens to teach a writing course.
That which is revealed about the writer are the things we glean about her from her choice of conversations she includes, but also through the very few questions her conversations partners throw her way sometimes. The book is a string of story pearls, each pearl added by the people she encounters, from her neighbour on the plane, to the friends she meets in Athens, to the people who attend her writing class.
In unlikely expositions, each tells her about him or herself in a series of conversations she has with them. Unlikely, because however open any person is to listening, it is doubtful that strangers will dissect happenings in their personal lives – not the great dramas, though there are plenty of those too, but the prosaic moments that lead to insight and revelation – to a complete stranger.
In order to enjoy the book, it is necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and, like the narrator, simply sit back and listen. If you can overcome what feels like a glitch in the writer’s expectation of the reader’s sense of what is possible, then this work will reward you on every page.
This is Cusk’s eighth novel. She has also written three non-fiction works, two of which – A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and aftermath – elicited such bitter criticism, it is quite astonishing that she finds the courage to continue.
To be clear: the criticism is not of her ability to write. Cusk is a very good writer. The criticism is against her particular form of memoir, which has been called exploitative and cold. I have no such criticism against her. I find her intellect too sharp, her questioning too pertinent and her expositions too layered to get sucked into conversations about “how dare she”. She must dare. Writers of her calibre must dare and dare and dare the reader to go towards conversations and concerns that are mostly hidden behind veils of righteousness. Cusk is fearless in this and, I am glad, uncowed by the outcries of her pseudo-liberal critics.
Her last book, Aftermath, chronicled her divorce, but it was not a dirty laundry book and exposed very little of the intimate machinations of one marriage and its ending. Instead, she brings a classical eye to modern conundrums around feminism and equality.
Here, although Outline is fiction, she gives voice to a fraction of the nuances, blemishes, quiet joys and teachings of human relations. Most of the people with whom the narrator comes into contact, end up speaking about their relationships – with marriage partners, children and extended family, sometimes with animals, learning or the arts – and they are not afraid to air their dirty laundry. Interestingly, while they voice their irritations with others, the main thrust of their disclosures are deeply personal and cast them at times in a somewhat queasy light, though one’s judgment is held in check because they are so recognisably, poignantly human in their fallibilities.
While telling a story in which a woman recounts life with an incorrigible dog – which she admits to ending up beating– the woman says “I became aware of this feeling of having deserted my own life … and I was suddenly filled with the most extraordinary sense of existence as a secret pain, an inner torment it was impossible to share with others, who asked you to attend to them while remaining oblivious to what was inside you”.
These sorts of observations – that plunge into the darkest pools of the crisis of living amongst people in a state of impenetrable singularity – make this novel a rewarding and subtly cerebral pleasure.