Brexit provides the sociopolitical background for Cusk’s existential investigation into the nature of freedom and the construction of identity, the concluding volume to her brooding trilogy begun with Outline (2015).
Narrator Faye has married again since her excursions in Transit (2017), but almost everyone she meets at a literary festival in an unnamed European country is either bitterly divorced or painfully ambivalent about family life. Even pets become the source of power struggles with spouses and children in some of the seething personal narratives people share with Faye. Cusk also paints a sardonic portrait of the literary life via the monologues of a philistine salesman-turned-publisher, a first novelist disenchanted by a pretentious writers’ retreat, and an arrogant journalist who’s supposed to be interviewing Faye but barely lets her get a word in. Despite the brilliantly detailed descriptions of these characters and the locations through which they uneasily pass, this is not conventionally naturalistic fiction; conversations reveal unrecorded lapses of time within the narrative, and people examine their experiences in highly abstract language not intended to reproduce vernacular speech. Physical reality is as mutable and subject to question as the identities people carefully create and then later reject. One man, who connects his new success as an author with the radical loss of half his body weight, speaks for many when he concludes that, “The person he’d always been…lived in a prison of his own making.” Many of the broken marriages described were shattered by one partner’s desire for freedom, but that too may be an illusion: “When they thought they were free,” says one man of some friends, “they were in fact lost without knowing it.” Faye’s tender telephone exchanges with her two sons remind us there is love in the world, too (though we never learn more about her new marriage than that it exists). Nonetheless, a jarring and ugly final scene confirms an overall impression that Cusk’s views of human nature and personal relationships are as bleak as ever.
Brilliantly accomplished and uncompromisingly dark.