Human identity: ‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

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A couple of years ago, I read Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline,’ a book that is so delicately evocative of a fractured self it was almost impossible to review (though I tried, and you can see the result at Shiny New Books).  Here, at Shoshi’s Book Blog, all I could do to give a snapshot of the book was quote from Rilke’s Fourth Duino Elegy:

…It’s as if – in a quick sketch – all the effort
has gone to prepare a background that allows us
to see precisely and yet still we cannot grasp
the real contour of our feelings and we know
only the pressures that shape us from the outside…

 I was thrilled to see a follow up novel in book shops last year.  But then I got anxious.  ‘Outline’ did such a perfect job of presenting a heroine sublimating her own ego and identity.  She is barely a character in her own novel, merely inhabiting the spaces left around the stories others tell her about themselves.  I wasn’t sure if I needed another novel giving more of the same; on the other hand, I couldn’t quite imagine being satisfied with anything less.

‘Transit’, as the name suggests, does indeed move on from ‘Outline.’  Unlike the Athens-set first novel (surrounded by abandoned building projects), the action in ‘Transit’ takes place in London, as our narrator attempts to fix up her new property into something resembling a family home.  It’s a difficult process, grubby and painful, echoing our narrator’s own slow process away from the numb self-effacement of ‘Outline.’

Structurally, the novel is made up of isolated episodes in which Faye meets different people and hears their stories.  In the previous book, such narratives were about the nature of storytelling itself.  With ‘Transit,’ there is a new pervasive theme, from the hairdresser to the neighbours, conversations seem to circle around ideas of childhood and children.  The question of what it means to be grown up echoes the difficulties faced by our narrator as she struggles to rebuild an identity for herself following her divorce and new existence as a single parent.

Like the newly bought flat around which much of its action centres, ‘Transit’ is a novel continually on the brink of collapse.  From the ambition of the structure (in which very little actually happens) and the characterisation (in a novel which actively wrestles with the idea of identity) it is every bit a powerful as ‘Outline.’  There is a third book planned to round off this collection of books and I can’t wait to see how Cusk continues her existential exploration of modern life.  Right now, I’m most excited to see what it will be called, hoping for a hat trick of fantastic titles that encapsulate their stories far better than any written review…

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6 Responses to Human identity: ‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Second novels are tough but she seems to have pulled it off

  2. Fascinating review Shoshi, I’m really interested to read both of these now, it sounds like she’s doing some interesting things with narrative and voice.

    • In a quiet way, I think these are the most experimental novels I’ve read in recent years. They stand alone, but I do really recommend reading them in order – and then blog about them to share what you think 🙂

  3. Izzy says:

    I read Outline last year and though I enjoyed it and still find myself thinking about it, something bothered me at the time and still does, and I wonder if you could perhaps enlighten me. My problem with that novel is that Rachel Cusk “don’t do the police in different voices” :-). All of the characters in the book seem to be speaking in the same voice, the men and the women, the young and the less young, the rich and the poor…nothing distinguishes them from one another, as if they were interchangeable. Now I can see it was intentional, but it still bothers me. I will definitely read Transit !

    • That’s really interesting. I had exactly the same problem with Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’ (a book I have come to love).
      I think you’re completely right about the voices, but I personally found it really powerful as a way of presenting the narrator’s own numbness. As I read it, the difference ‘voices’ all really exist to reflect back her own experiences to her, which is why certain ideas and themes reappear time after time. I don’t think I’ve read such an interesting and effective presentation of someone suffering from depression – and so unable to really engage with the outside world – before. The protagonist is not able to relate to those around her, and when they speak, all she hears are echoes of her own preoccupations.
      There is also the fact that these books are about ‘character’ and identity as philosophical ideas rather than literary conventions.
      Sorry for such a long reply; the books are so complex, this is really just the start a response to your very valid problem with ‘Outline’. I suspect you’ll find the same thing with ‘Transit,’ but I’d be interested if there is any development at all, given my thesis that this book is a step away from isolated depression and towards socialisation for the protagonist.

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