Reading the familiar

December 11, 2017

I had a book by Rachel Cusk on my bookshelf for a long time and, when one of my students mentioned her as a favourite author, I finally got around to reading it. Arlington Park (2006) is a searing portrait of middle-class mothers in suburban England making their way through one day, from dropping the children to school, to the forced socialising of a parental dinner party. Cusk moves from one character to the next without bothering too much with convoluted backstory and her writing is just exquisite. Nothing dramatic happens yet there is such power wrought from the smallest of moments.

 

My love affair with Cusk resulted in me reading Outline (2014), her nonfiction work A Life's Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001) and, currently, her most recent work Transit (2017). The style of this latest, along with Outline, is startlingly different from the early writing where plot, character development, setting description and all those other "trappings" of realistic writing have been abandoned. Mostly, the work involves conversations between the narrator, Faye, and friends and strangers, told both through direct speech and as paraphrase. Each chapter generally puts the narrator into one "scene", or interaction, often ending when the characters physically leave one another.

 

What struck me when reading these works was how there are so many times in our lives which are rarely depicted in fiction. For example, in Transit, Cusk has her narrator at the hairdressers, having her hair dyed. The hairdresser tells a story about his nephew, whose come to live with him for a period of time and how he is enjoying the boy's presence, even as he knows how hard it will be when the stay ends: 'One day he'll leave, and the thought has occurred to me that I'll probably miss him - that the place might feel empty, where before it felt complete. I might have given up more than I bargained for...' Such a small story, but written to create resonance.

 

When I try to recall similar ordinary scenes - times in the supermarket, the moments hanging around for the kids to finish their swimming lesson, the banal conversations at the park - I'm struck by how few times we are given the familiar and ordinary in literature, and how much I enjoy finding them.

 

 

 

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