The first of this week's three book columns looks at the second instalment of Rachel Cusk's trilogy

BY Francesca Wade in Culture Digest | 12 SEP 16

The title of Rachel Cusk’s ninth novel arises in an unsolicited email from an internet astrologer to the narrator Faye: ‘She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky’. It is evident, the astrologer continues, that her addressee ‘had lost my way in life, that I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come’. This notification, which opens the book, does herald a period of transition and search for meaning of a sort, though the astrologer is not necessarily to thank. As is typical of our elusive narrator, we never learn what the astrologer advises (though Faye pays for her report), nor whether her fateful counsel is accepted.

Transit is the second volume in a trilogy that began in 2015 with Outline, a startlingly original novel which, like Transit, showcases Cusk’s sharp observation of the cadences of human behaviour, her calm but insistent interrogation of character and relationships, and her extraordinarily precise style of prose, somehow both clinical and lyrical. We know little more than the bare facts of Faye’s life: she is a writer, divorced with two sons, and upon moving to London she buys a crumbling flat (‘a bad house in a good street’) and begins the process of renovating it completely – to the horror of the unpleasant couple who live in squalor downstairs. The narrative comprises several interlinked vignettes: Faye encounters an ex-boyfriend, who still lives in the house they used to share; she speaks at a literary festival, though does not participate in the self-revelations of the two male memoirists on her panel; and attends an uncomfortable dinner with her recently divorced cousin and his new stepchildren.

Much of Outline’s narration is in the form of stories told to Faye by people she encounters, each of whom treat her as a blank canvas onto which to offload and project their own desires, neuroses and traumas. In Transit, however, Faye positions herself to some degree in the opposite position: she employs the services of several professionals – an estate agent, a builder, a hairdresser – whose jobs, they tell her, involve assuming responsibility for affirming others’ aspirations, accepting the power to create the way their clients choose to present themselves publicly, becoming ‘an extension of their own will’. Faye’s position is ambiguous, somewhere between passive and active, and Cusk’s forensic eye is turned on the inextricable ideas of freedom and change, as Faye explores the possibilities of agency and self-determination, her house and body the dual testing grounds. These are bold, important books, and it will be fascinating to see whether (and if so, how) Faye discovers peace in the third instalment. 

Rachel Cusk, Transit, will be published by Jonathan Cape on 29 September; The second instalment of this week's Culture Digest will feature Alejandro Zambra's Multiple Choice, and will be available on Wednesday

Francesca Wade is editor of The White Review and is based in London, UK. Square Haunting was published by Faber & Faber in January 2020.