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Nov 18

Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

Faye flies to Greece to give a two-day writing class.  Each chapter is made up of the conversations she has on her trip.  It’s also a book where the narrator barely makes an impression and what’s discussed mostly centres on broken relationships and the struggle of family life.

Should I read it?

Yes, but you might want to read the Kindle Sample first.  It’s a novel with no plot, no character arc and no dramatic tension.  There’s very little direct dialogue so at times there’s a rambling quality to the conversations.  But at it’s best the writing is striking and visceral and strangely intimate.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

We first learn the name of Outline‘s narrator, Faye, about 84% into the novel (at least according to my Kindle).  It’s a blink it or miss it moment.  In fact, I didn’t register her name until I saw it cropping up in reviews of the book.

Cusk’s Goldsmith Prize nominated novel isn’t so much a story as it is a fragment of time in the life of the narrator.  Faye has traveled to Greece to instruct a two-day writing class.  When she arrives in Athens she teaches her students, has dinner with friends and spends time on a boat with a man – referred throughout the book as “my neighbor” – who she met on the plane during the flight over.  For Faye, there’s no character arc, no dramatic tension, no epiphanies or revelations.  She fades out of the story just liked she faded in, with barely a ripple.

And yet Faye is anything but a passive character.  While she might reveal very little of herself, she is able to exert influence on those around her.  Within minutes of meeting Faye, “my neighbor” on the plane is providing intimate details about his failed marriages.  The people she visits and dines with in Greece – both stranger and friend – are quick to unburden themselves of their life story.  The students in her class, asked by Faye to write a story about an animal, provide stories that are personal and confronting.

The most striking of these is Penelope’s story about Mimi the dog.  Penelope initially buys the puppy for her children.  But as often happens, the responsibility for the dog quickly changes hands from the children back to Penelope.  Unfortunately Mimi is a naughty dog, making messes all over the house and shredding the furniture.  Because she now feels obligated to care for the dog, Penelope grows to hate Mimi (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):.

“One day when she has been barking all afternoon and the children had refused to take her out, and I discovered her in the sitting room chewing to shreds a new cushion I had just bought while the children stared, unconcerned, at the television, I found myself seized by an uncontrollable fury that I hit her.  The children were deeply shocked and angry.  They threw themselves on Mimi to protect her from me; they looked at me as though I were a monster.  But if I had become a monster, it was Mimi, I believed, who had made me one.”

The relationship between Penelope and Mimi fractures even further to the point that the dog runs away after an incident with a cake.  (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):

“I crossed the kitchen and grabbed her by the collar.  In front of my sister, I yanked her off the counter and sent her scrambling to the floor, and I proceeded to beat her while she yelped and struggled.  The two of us fought, me panting and seeking to punch her as hard as I could, she writhing and yelping, until finally she succeeded in pulling her head free of the collar.  She ran out of the kitchen, her claws scrabbling and sliding on the tiled floor, and into the hall, where the front door still stood open, and then out into the street, where she tore off up the pavement and disappeared.”

Penelope paused and placed her fingers gentle and then probingly to her temples.

This is visceral, gut wrenching stuff and at its best the conversations in Outline are raw and honest with a confessional vibe.  That said, not all of them are these compelling or interesting, and there are times when the ramblings of the people she’s talking to becomes tedious.  Given that Faye is only exposed to people who are either educated or wealthy (or both) they smack of the torturous ennui of the upper middle class (yes, I stole that phrase from the internet).

What’s also odd, though not necessarily a deal-breaker, is that we never really get a sense of Greece or Athens from these conversations.  There are some brief mentions of the protests that occurred after the announcement of the austerity measures in Greece, but generally this book could have taken place anywhere.  Even the descriptions of the boat ride with “my neighbour” have a blandness about them.  It might be that Cusk is making a point about the universality of a certain type of story, one that deals with relationships.  It’s also possible she didn’t want to exoticise the location.

Because it eschews the conventions of the traditional novel, Outline is not going to be for everyone.  But when the writing is firing on all cylinders it is confronting and visceral and strangely intimate.  Rather than be about the erasure of woman in literature, the novel explores the empowerment of silence, of listening and of allowing others to be heard.

2 comments

3 pings

  1. vikzwrites

    Thanks for the review. I have had a sample of that book sitting on my kindle for some time. I might take a look.

    1. Mondyboy

      No problems. The first chapter (or conversation) definitely sets the tone and style for the rest of the novel. So if doesn’t grab you I wouldn’t bother.

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