May 23, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 27°C
Search the archives:
Bios & Memoirs


The Story of My Teeth

The brilliant and ambitious Mexican Valeria Luiselli tries far too hard in her debut novel.

A Cure for Suicide

In Jesse Ball's unsettling novel, suicide has a "cure" of sorts, but the price is profoundly surreal.

A Little Lumpen Novelita

Roberto Bolaño's understated Rome-set novella is a posthumous example of the Chilean writer's genius.

Barrow's Point

Robert Schirmer invents a Wisconsin town and packs it with homophobia and its fallout.

The Hunger Saint

Olivia Cerrone's evocative novella is a searing journey into turn-of-the-20th-century Sicilian mines.

Lincoln in the Bardot

George Saunders' ambitious journey into the world of limbo and Abraham Lincoln's grief at the death of his son is a gossip-fest.

Exit West

In "Exit West," Mohsin Hamid gives global migration a magically compassionate new look.

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Anuk Arudpragasam's debut is a superior work of fiction and poised rendering of unimaginable sadness.

Bios & Memoirs

War and Turpentine

A Flemish-Belgian writer "reinvents" his grandfather to brilliant and dramatic effect.


A World Apart

In 1951, Polish writer Gustaw Herling recalled his Gulag days, and entered a rare class of writers.

By Rachel Cusk
Jonathan Cape, 2016. 271 pages

If bourgeois post-modernism could take human shape and name a representative, British novelist Rachel Cusk would top its list. She routinely uses thinly veiled autobiography to deliver keen if scathing novels littered with shaky or broken marriages, midlife awareness (read woe), problematic motherhood, and all manner of immoveable disenchantment.

The sponge-like narrator of "Transit" has appeared before, in "Outline," with a third book set to complete trilogy. In "Outline," Cusk's writer protagonist tangled with a fleet of lost souls and eccentrics in Greece, where she'd traveled to get away from a marital breakdown. Now she's back in London (a city that offers "a sort of lexicon of human behavior…") where she's decided to refurbish a money pit while attending to the lives of her two sons (never focused on) and observing a new parade of characters, including estate agents, builders, suitors, other writers, students, women in crises, truculent neighbors and homesick immigrants.

Cusk's is not a particularly sympathetic writer. Comfortably wedged in the emotionally neutral role of observer, her single-mother narrator is most interested in what makes those who rotate around her tick, even if that means dwelling on doubt and personal wreckage — since both represent the underlying "truth" of 21st-century life. All seek freedom but none attain it, let alone fathom what it might mean to have.

According to the narrator, "A major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky," but that's just a ruse, or irony, since the prediction comes from an online astrologer. The real sky is London dim. Early on, an ex-boyfriend refers to "faux-humans." A contented couple he sees as having reached "the completeness of their oblivion." Everything around him "is already an imitation of itself." Then there's cheering narrator's "new" garden, filthy and animal-ridden. If the pigeons seem "malevolent," they're at least better than her new neighbor, who possesses (and demonstrates) "an unmistakable core of violence." Not to be denied, garrulous hairdresser Dale says "freedom is overrated" and insists the fake is "more real than the real." Amid a "grim, grey landscape," two writers at a rain-marred festival, Julius and Louis, hover between bleak funny and outright melancholy (Louis ponders "the inherently traumatic nature of living itself.") A gay youth named Olive tells the narrator that nowhere on his travels through Europe did he find "the intact civilization he had imagined but instead a ragged collection of confused people adrift in an unfamiliar place."

And so it goes. Comic relief, such as it is, issues from a duo of workers, a self-assured Albanian and a homesick Pole. Both speak happily chaotic English and briefly help pry the book away from its clockwork direness.

Cusk's strength is the devoutness of her listening. Her considered reading of people and moods can detonate luminous bolts of emotional intelligence. But the underbelly of that same gift is a focus on characters who indulge a mournful if not whiny kind of self-awareness, a trait Cusk takes to compulsively, one in which the word disappointment prevails over all else.

Reviewed by Book Staff
Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

Everything you need to know about visiting or moving to Tuscany, Italy.