Following an off-key memoir (Aftermath, 2012), Cusk returns to fiction and top form in a novel about the stories we tell ourselves and others.
The nameless narrator is on a plane from London to Athens to teach a summer writing course when an older Greek man begins to confide in her about his unhappy childhood. After learning the narrator is divorced, he tells her about his own marital misadventures. “So much is lost…in the shipwreck,” he says mournfully. It’s the first of many keening conversation she has with her students, Greek friends and fellow writers. They reveal marriages splintered when shared assumptions diverge; parents wearied by their children’s demands but ambivalent when they cease; the struggle to give up comforting illusions and face reality—but then again, don’t we all construct our own realities? (That question, unsurprisingly, especially preoccupies her younger students.) As they pour forth the particulars of their lives, the narrator sparingly doles out some of hers while coping with texts and phone calls from her needy sons. Pained by the disconnect “between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have,” she says, “I had decided to want nothing at all….I was trying to find a different way of living in the world.” The existential musing can get somewhat abstract, but it’s grounded by Cusk’s knack for telling details: the slightly reddened eyes of the narrator’s friend who asks for a nonalcoholic beer or the vivid makeup of a woman whose unfaithful husband has just redecorated his office entirely in white. The individual stories collectively suggest that self-knowledge is a poor substitute for happiness, but perhaps readers can find some hope from the narrator’s admission that she can’t shake “this desire to be free…despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.”
Dark, for sure, but rich in human variety and unsentimental empathy: a welcome change from the cloistered, self-absorbed feel of Arlington Park (2007) and The Bradshaw Variations (2010).