February 2017

by Kevin Rabalais

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk
Jonathan Cape; $32.99

A novel, to paraphrase Stendhal, is a mirror travelling down a road. In Outline (2015) and Transit – the first two published volumes of a proposed trilogy – Canadian-born, UK-based novelist Rachel Cusk offers disconcerting reflections about the way we live. The daily life of her narrator, Faye, takes her through the streets of London. There, she segues among a chorus of disparate voices and chronicles the disconnected lives and secrets of those she encounters, all the while maintaining an often icy mystery about herself.

Transit opens after the narrator returns to London from teaching a summer writing seminar in Greece, a trip that Cusk recounts in Outline. The narrator’s philosophy, as we find it in Transit, is that “Freedom is a home you leave once and can never go back to.” Divorced and raising her children alone, she strives to re-locate a sense of freedom. “I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief.”

These, however, are rare forays into the narrator’s mind. A master of the lost art of listening, she offers little judgement as she collects stories of ex-lovers, builders, hairdressers, students and writers. These characters find themselves and their ideas in transition, whether regarding aspects of love and life, the process of ageing and creation, or the ethical and moral questions that a daily sojourn through the neighbourhood incites us to address. In Outline, Cusk’s narrator admits a desire to “find a different way of living in the world”. These books also show Cusk seeking a different way of writing. Although her style can be at times essayistic, she seduces us into a claustrophobic narrative that reveals the flaws in the technology and codes of our time. This allows her to examine each of the characters’ growing separation from themselves and one another. This, too, becomes part of Cusk’s achievement. In Transit, one character admits to Faye that he “actually felt something akin to love … for the female voice that guided him while he was driving his car, so much more devotedly than his wife ever had”. Another says, “We are so schooled … in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.”

In these books, Cusk reveals herself as a writer with an acerbic humour and a probing mind. Her style and substance coalesce to highlight the tales of those among us who are so trapped in the frenzied hum of their lives that they remain unaware of their own ennui or their purpose. Transit urges us into uncomfortable spaces. It is lucid, invigorating and, most of all, unsettling.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

View Edition

In This Issue

Image of Julie Bishop

The character business

What does the deluge of political biography and memoir say about politicians and readers?

The science question and feminism

STEM is the future, and women need to be part of it

Image of Helen Tufts and Helena Born

Climax isn’t the point

Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’ and Sheila Rowbotham’s ‘Rebel Crossings’ approach the concept of free love from different perspectives


Relying on Trump

Australia needs to rethink its approach to regional security

Read on

Still from Shane Meadows’ ‘The Virtues’

Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’

Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

Cover image of ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma

Cartoon image of man standing on chess board

Reality is irreversible

The systems game and the need for global regime change

Image of Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’

Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme