Monthly Archives: October 2018

Pre-loved books, really?

What a terrible euphemism is ‘pre-loved’. You can find it attached to clothes, and furniture and handbags and, of all things, books. They are SECOND-HAND people, second-hand, not necessarily pre-loved. Many of us bookish people do not give away books that we love.

I’ve recently had cause to think about second-hand books a great deal. I know that many bookish bloggers indulge themselves in second-hand bookstores. I am among them. But I had a problem with second-hand books, or rather seven problems.

Second-hand book sale

To raise some funds for our writing group we recently held a small event for families in the hall next to the library, hoping to catch some passing trade from Saturday morning book borrowers. I volunteered to collect and sell second-hand books.

I have done this before, in aid of Rwandan teacher education. The funds raised were to buy some textbooks for the Ministry Library so that two of our students from Rwanda could help improve the education system as the country emerged from the horrors of its recent past. They were studying Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London (as it was then). They had scarcely enough funds to support their studies let alone provide stock for teachers back home. On that occasion we encouraged our staff and students to donate books they no longer needed and to buy those that interested them. It worked well. I myself bought a huge and much used French-English dictionary. The students bought the textbooks they needed. We did it twice.

I lay awake, the night before the writing group book sale, worried that we wouldn’t have enough books to sell. I needn’t have wasted any time tossing and turning. Many members of the group brought in books for the stall. Sadly few of them wanted to buy any. And the attendance at the event was poor. Having brought two bags of books myself, I found myself having to take away seven, count them, SEVEN bags for life, of unsold books. We did make some money on the event.

I was left with all those bags of books to dispose of in the local second-hand and charity shops, and it took me two months. At least there were no copies of Fifty Shades of Grey or of The Da Vinci Code. It seems that no one wants these best sellers. They may have sold in their millions but they are also the most disposed of books (see my post on the subject of unwanted and abandoned books here).

The allure of the second-hand book

I love rootling around the shelves of passed-on books. There is always the chance of finding a treasure, by which I mean a book you always wanted to read but you didn’t know it. Here are four finds that I would describe like that:

  • The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
  • The House in Paris and Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
  • Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

And I am always on the lookout for Virago editions in the old green covers, interesting both inside and for the covers. The paintings used on those books were an education. The contents introduced me to some previously neglected authors, mostly women.

And I keep an eye out for old orange penguin books. These are not hard to find, but I use the criteria that I must want to read the book if I am to buy it, or that I have enjoyed reading it and no longer have a copy. I will admit to having three copies of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes and some other multiple copies (such as A Room of One’s Own), which I sometimes think I should try to put back into circulation.

Part of the allure of the second-hand book is imagining the possible pleasure of the previous reader/s. Occasionally one finds markings on the text, or inscriptions inside the cover. Even more rarely one finds things inside. I wrote a post about marking the page once, (here’s the link) and before it was even published on the blog I had found a lacy bookmark in a used book.

The mother of a friend of mine would not have liked the idea of previous readers. She baked library books to disinfect them so afraid was she of germs being passed on. I have met people who don’t like the idea of second-hand books for the same reason. ‘Ugh, you don’t know where they have been!’

The downside of second-hand books

While they are cheaper than new books, I wonder if the sale of second hand books doesn’t undercut both the publishing industry and, more importantly, the author who doesn’t get any royalties from the sale. I understand that royalties are paid on the first sale, but perhaps the second-hand copy prevented the reader buying a new copy and the author receiving more royalties. Perhaps the volume of sales is not big enough for this to matter. I don’t know but it worries me. On the other hand, in a charity shop someone is getting something for the sale of the book: part of a cow, some shelter, some assistance. And a book has moved on to a new home and to find new readers.

What are your great second-hand purchases?

I am asking readers to repeat their subscription request as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of previous ones. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

And today we have naming of parts. When I taught sex education I would begin with an activity called ‘naming of parts’. The students were encouraged to say all the words they knew associated with sexual parts of the body. Then we would agree on the terms we would use, having clarified what each of them meant. I am reminded of this activity when I read The Vagina Monologues.

The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 1990s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The Vagina Monologues was performed and published in the 1990s in New York. How far we have come since the first post about a book on gardening for the 1900s: Ms Jekyll and her Garden.

The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler began TVM (as her theatre piece gets called) like this:

I bet you’re worried. was worried. (3)

Vagina is harsh-sounding word (‘it sounds like an infection at best’ 5), but it has been, and maybe still is, in need of reclaiming. Eve Ensler is an American feminist activist who began performing TVM in part to reclaim and respect the word and female sexuality. The piece has been described as an episodic play, and as political theatre.

In her foreword Gloria Steinem suggests that reclaiming the word, using it, can help rescue and revise the symbols of women’s sexuality. Establishing more respect for women and their bodies is part of a bigger project, as she says:

If overthrowing some five thousand years of patriarchy seems like a big order, just focus on celebrating each self-respecting step along the way. (xviii)

Being explicit about the term, rather than referring euphemistically to ‘down there’, is about self-respect and about reclaiming women’s power over their own bodies and combatting violence against women and young girls.

In her introduction Eve Ensler claims she was an obvious person to begin this project. She had experience as a playwright who used interviews as the basis of her pieces, and she was a feminist. She found herself asking women about their vaginas and soon had more than 200 interviews to draw on. These form the basis of the monologues.

If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?

A beret. A leather jacket. Silk stockings. Mink. A pink boa. … (15)

This is one of the first monologues and it is followed by more like that and stories and experiences told to Eve Ensler in her interviews. TVM was performed in NY City and later in many other cities of the world.

I attended a performance in London probably 12 years ago. I am ashamed to say that I can’t remember who performed it. I can remember that it was a joyous, participative and energizing event. Before I re-read the text I thought that it would be dated. But the violence and abuse of women seems to be even more evident now than back then, and anyway the play is still being updated and performed every year, to coincide with V-Day (V standing for Violence, Vagina and Valentine).

V-Day is a non-profit organisation that provides funds to organisations around the world aimed at stopping violence against girls and women. Many well-known actors have performed in TVM, including Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Fonda and Oprah Winfrey.

Eve Ensler is still writing in support of women. For example she wrote a moving appreciation in the Guardian of the joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dennis Mukwege, earlier this month, which you can find here.

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler were first performed in 1994 at HERE Arts Center New York City. A version of the text was first published there in 1998. I used the Virago edition of 2001. 188pp. A 20thanniversary edition was produced by Virago this year.

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 for the Decades Project I am featuring non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc).

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

I am asking readers to repeat their subscription request as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of previous ones. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

People in the Room by Norah Lange

People in the Room by Norah Lange is my October choice in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. This novel was first published in Argentina in 1950, and has only recently been translated by Charlotte Whittle.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory work, about a young girl who spies on three women in the house across the street.

… an uncanny exploration of desire, domestic space, voyeurism, and female isolation, a twentieth century masterpiece … [from the blurb]

People in the Room by Norah Lange was first published in Argentina in 1950 and in English in 2018, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle.

People in the Room by Norah Lange

The story is minimal. A young girl, the narrator, lives in a city, in a nice area. Across the road she can see the heads of three women sitting in their house. She conjures all kinds of ideas about them as nothing much happens. A telegram arrives, which she intercepts, and a man visits. Letters are handed over, and then given back to one of the women. The older woman begins to fascinate her. A widow? A murderer? The girl visits and watches and most of the novel is her account of her own reactions to almost nothing, or to the merest hint of events or possessions from the women or to her own imagination about them.

Her family become concerned that she has changed and send her away. On her return she finds that everything is different.

So what is it about?

One reason that I did not enjoy this book very much was that it is such an accurate version of self-obsessed adolescence. It reveals the neediness of adolescence, wanting to be the centre of attention; the narrator is not happy that her family have not noticed the change in her, for example. And there is their simultaneous need for secrets; she tells her family nothing about her obsessive spying on the women in the house opposite.

It is also about the boredom of a young woman in Argentina at that time, and about the restrictions suffered by older women. Loneliness, isolation, boredom, waiting for death become the obsessions of all these women. The narrator’s scope is claustrophobic. She rarely steps beyond her street, Avenida Juramento, beyond her family home or the house opposite. No wonder she is bored. No wonder she turns to invention, speculation and voyeurism.

Adolescents seek control of their lives, having so little but seeing the approach of adulthood. There is nothing more controlling than narrating your own story, its own versions, speculations, truths and lies. And spying.

In my own life I have had rather too much adolescent wordery, but Anna Ashanyan caught something of the quality of the prose when she wrote the following in the Guardian review in September 2018:

Combining painterly qualities with poetic imagery, Lange’s prose is rich in metaphor, self-absorbed and, at its best, darkly irresistible. [Guardian Sept 2018]

It is reported in the introduction that an inspiration for the novel came when Norah Lange saw the triple portrait of the Bronte sisters. Painted by Bramwell, famously he included himself and then erased his image.

Norah Lange

Norah Lange from Revista Literaria 1970 via Wiki Commons

Norah Lange was born in Buenos Aires in 1905 into a literary family and was a prominent member of the avant garde in the city in the 1920s and 30s. She died in 1972. References to her on the internet always include mention of Borges and sometimes her husband Oliverio Girondo who was a poet. She first made her name first as a poet and then as a novelist. Her reputation is in the shadow of these men’s. Feminism has always been ignored when possible, and the culture at that time was dominated by ideals of machismo.

Related articles

I recommend two reviews in the Guardian, which I found helpful in giving me a perspective on this novel.

Norah Lange: Finally, ‘Borge’s muse’ gets her time in the spotlight by James Reith. The article looks at why Norah Lange has been ignored, and the headline writer has fallen right into that old trap …

People in the Room by Norah Lange -Voyeurism and dreams in Buenos Aires by Anna Ashanyan

People in the Room by Norah Lange, first published in Argentina in 1950 and in the English version by Andotherstories in 2018. 167pp

Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clanby Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

I am asking readers to repeat their subscription request as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of previous ones. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

Revisiting O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

In 1913, a young woman from Nebraska published a novel that endorsed the American Dream. The novel promoted the idea that hard work and maintaining good order can produce abundant food from the ground and money in your pocket. What sets this depiction of the American Dream apart from others is that the creator of this wealth is a woman – Alexandra Bergson.

O Pioneers! is the second novel by Willa Cather and it draws on her experience of settling in the prairies of Nebraska. It was my choice in the Decades Project featuring fiction by women, this one for the decade 1910-1919. This is a revision of the original post.

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! is set in Nebraska and celebrates the moment when the westward settlement of the North American interior reached the prairies. Willa Cather’s own family had travelled from Virginia to Nebraska to build their lives there as farmers.

In O Pioneers! the Bergsons do not have money. They have come from Sweden to Nebraska and the land they cultivate has never been worked before. Alexandra is a capable young woman, and her father recognises her ability to manage the farm before his early death. She continues his work, caring for her three brothers, and establishing the farm. After an initial struggle she does very well, through a combinations of research, investment and experimentation. She is able to provide the two oldest boys with their own farms, a university education to the youngest boy and a home and employment to an assortment of other people. She is well regarded in their community.

Alexandra hardly considers marriage, and certainly does not see it as a necessity for a young woman or as her destiny.

She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (112)

One of the most poignant scenes involves the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, who warn Alexandra against marrying Carl, a childhood friend who has returned to stay with her. By this time Alexandra has built up a large and thriving ranch, employing several people. She has provided two brothers with a livelihood but Oscar says, ‘people have begun to talk’. Lou tells her,

‘You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.’

‘How am I?’

‘People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.’ …

Oscar rose. ‘Yes,’ he broke in, ‘everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!’ (91-2)

Alexandra stands up for herself, refuses to bow to her brothers’ fear of social embarrassment. She has nothing more to do with her brothers after this. It’s refreshing to read a novel from 100 years ago suggesting that a women’s marriage is not the business of the male members of her family. She does eventually marry Carl, on her own terms.

Other features of O Pioneers!

The novel includes a double murder of a pair of lovers. A strange aspect of the plot is that Alexandra visits the murderer in prison, and vows to use her influence to get him pardoned. The introduction to my edition suggests that Alexandra has a ‘rage for order’ and the lovers had disrupted the order of the community. The text suggests an additional reason for her response: she likes to do things, make things better. She loved both the victims, but she cannot do anything for them. She pities the wronged husband and believes she can do something for him.

The characters in the novel are sharply drawn. Alexandra herself comes across as a vivid and energetic pioneer. She is a contrast to Marie, the Bohemian (that is she came from Bohemia – provenance is important to pioneers) who is attractive, lively and always cheerful. Alexandra’s brothers are cautious, resentful, not models of the pioneer spirit.

One character, Ivar, suffers fits of some kind, and keeps himself away from the community, living in an adapted cave and reading the Bible. He has a particular ability with horses. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra when he gets too old to look after himself, an indication of her generous spirit.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

I have indicated that this novel draws on Willa Cather’s own experience. In 1931 using a rural analogy she described the writing of her second novel:

I began to write a book entirely for myself, a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. … Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. (170: from My First Novels)

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She had an active life as a journalist, writing novels, including My Antonia  (also reviewed on this blog which you can readat this link here), editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, for example.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. First published in 1913. Edition used in this review is by Oxford World Classics. 179 pp

I am asking readers to repeat their subscription request as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of previous ones. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

Books with Mrs or Miss in the title

What on earth accounts for the popularity of posts on Bookword blog, reviews of novels with Mrs or Miss in the title? Perhaps these books sell better as well. I can see no particular connection, except that nearly all the books I mention are by women. But then I tend to read more books by women than men. Perhaps you can find some connections?

Here are some brief notes and links to any posts on Bookword.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

This novel has always been one of the most popular in the older women in fiction series. It concerns a widow with a neglectful family who becomes a resident at the Claremont Hotel in London. She feels the need to impress the other residents and so invites a young acquaintance to pretend to be her nephew. The pains of old age are deftly drawn as the story reaches its conclusion. You can find the longer review here.

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf (1922)

This is actually a short story, an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa Dalloway. She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. The post about the short story can be found here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway appeared three times in Virginia Woolf’s writing: this short story, the novel that bears her name in 1925 and in her early novel The Voyage Out (review can be found here).

Miss Ranskill Comes Home byBarbara Euphan Todd (1946)

This is a Rip Van Winkle story by the creator of Worzel Gummage. Miss Ranskill returns home to find Britain in the middle of World War Two. She is startled by significant changes, in topics of conversation and vocabulary, the necessity of coupons to buy clothes and food, the need for blackout and the daily concerns of middle class women. Readers were being invited to look again at things they took for granted and to reassess their reactions and their values. You can read more about this novel here.

Miss Mole by EH Young (1930)

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well placed. She seems to delight in being less than straightforward. She takes on the housekeeping for a difficult family and helps them all. The novel is concerned with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s true morality. The review can be found here.

And you might also like …

Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (1938)

Published by Persephone Books this charming Cinderella story takes a governess of restricted experience and plunges her into the high life in London as the right hand woman for a nightclub singer, Miss La Fosse. I do not know of anyone who read this book and who had a bad reaction to it.

There are also books with Mr in the title

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson and translated by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

The Mr Men series by Roger Hargreaves

And no doubt you can think of many more books with Mrs, Miss or Mt in the title, including some to recommend.

Please repeat your subscription request as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of previous ones. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Have you noticed that recently novel writers have begun to explore the realities of old age, and especially of Alzheimer’s? In February 2015 I posted my review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. The main character, Maud, in that novel has Alzheimer’s and is treated very respectfully by her creator, even if her misunderstandings cause some humour, mostly it is at the expense of others.

Florence Claybourne is the main character in Three Things about Elsie and she may be suffering from Alzheimer’s.  She also has a series of connected mysteries to solve about her past, involving her best friend Elsie.

Three Things about Elsie is the 35thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Three Things about Elsie

This novel has a light touch. The plot drives it along, sometimes stretching the reader’s credulity, but none the less enjoyable.

The main character, and for most of the novel the narrator, is Flo who is 84 and lives in a sheltered flat, but she is a bit of a loner. She has never married, and was delighted when Elsie also turned up at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. The reader learns two things about Elsie very quickly: she is Flo’s best friend and she is someone who always says the right thing to her. This is important for Flo is outspoken, combative and not easily placated once she has an idea in her head. Also, she is finding it hard to remember things. The third thing about Elsie provides the narrative drive and we do not learn this third thing until near the end.

Flo and Elsie are befriended by General Jack. There is a mystery that involves them from the time when they were young women and worked together in the factory. When Ronnie Butler arrives at Cherry Trees Flo is devastated. She believed that he drowned decades before. Indeed, she believes that she killed him.

With General Jack they investigate the new arrival and begin to uncover some unpleasant events in 1953. Elsie’s sister was deliberately killed in a hit and run, by Ronnie Butler. Now going under the name of Gabriel Price, the new arrival plays mind games with Flo. She gradually recovers her memory of the events, with help from Jack and Elsie and a visit to Whitby, and these events are not at all what she thought had happened.

Florence Claybourne

The novel is framed as Flo has fallen and lies on the floor of her flat waiting for rescue. The reader’s sympathies are therefore immediately with Flo, and we are prepared for her to be mistaken about all kinds of things, including the identity of Gabriel Price.

It is hard to show diminishing mental capacities without some crazy moments, some of which can be quite frightening. One of the best scenes in the novel comes when Flo visits the doctor for an assessment of her mental state. He begins by checking her name, but then she disconcerts him by asking his. Then come the questions.

It’s strange how easily you can become flustered when someone is watching you. If they were casual questions, asked at a bus stop or in a supermarket queue, I’m sure the answers would come to us easily, but when Dr Andrews is staring down at you with his pen waiting over a piece of paper, you begin to doubt your own name. He started by asking the day of the week. Of course, I knew it was Tuesday, but going to Whitby threw me off and I plumped for Thursday …

‘Take seven away from a hundred,’ he said. ‘And keep going until I tell you to stop.’

I looked at his clipboard across the coffee table.

‘You have the answers,’ I pointed. ‘Printed at the side.’

Dr Andrews curled his arm around the sheet of paper, like a child in a classroom. ‘You shouldn’t worry about what I know,’ he said …

The last thing he did was hold up a piece of paper. It said Close Your Eyeson it.

‘Why would we want to do that?’ I said.

‘Because I’m asking you to.’ Dr Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

‘Is it a surprise?’ I said.

I heard Dr Andrews sigh. ‘Do you not usually do as someone asks?’

I frowned. ‘Not if I can help it.’ (397-8)

She may be awkward but Flo is very appreciative when treated well. For example, when Handy Simon does not patronise her but offers genuine sympathy and comfort when she needs it. And it is the strong character of Flo that appears to many of the characters in the book to be provocative and difficult: to the staff who run and clean Cherry Trees, excepting Handy Simon; the policeman who interviews her in Whitby; Dr Andrews; just about everyone.

Old women often have wisdom. One of the finest inventions of the novel is Elsie’s idea of the long second, which helps Flo remember.

It’s when you catch the clock, holding on to a second so it lasts just a fraction longer than it should. When the world gives you just a little bit more time to make the right decision. (49)

What Flo remembers about herself is important. Being 84 she has a long back-story. She is not just a forgetful old lady. She has always stood up for people, she has been generous and appreciative. And she has value in the present because she helps people find their strengths.

But if you find Florence Claybourne a little too much on the saccharine side, you could try the corrective of the previous woman in this series: Great Granny Webster. The link is here.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon published by Borough Press in 2018. 455pp

Please repeat your subscription as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of previous ones. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Outline by Rachel Cusk

I’m in a phase of rereading books, and I’m really enjoying it. There are still lots of new and unread books I want to read, but they can wait. I first read Outline when it was published in 2014, but it was recently recommended to me by a friend who writes and it received more attention when Rachel Cusk added the second and third volumes to the trilogy: Transit and Kudos. The rereading has led me to appreciate the writerly intelligence of this novel even more.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The novel is described as ten conversations. It is narrated by a writing tutor who flies to Athens to provide some classes for aspiring writers. Just about everyone she meets tells her a story about themselves, either because they meet her – sitting next to her on the plane, or socially for dinner, for example – or because they are students in her class. The narrator’s own story is not explicitly told, but the reader must divine her responses and her situation from what is not said. The ten conversations create her outline.

Most of the stories are presented in reported speech, with occasional direct speech. Most of the people she meets are concerned with the failure of intimacy and the difficulty of coping with change. We are given details about their physique, clothes, how they interact with waiters, the sea, other students. There appears to be little direct engagement by these people with the narrator. When one of the students complains bitterly about her lack of direction in the lessons, or when a man tries to kiss her, her emotional reactions are only relayed to us later. Everything seems to be mediated.

So the outline of the title is what surrounds Faye, but who Faye is she does not tell us. Even her name is only revealed casually towards the end of the ten chapters. We know she is a writer, has a son and needs money and she is trying to borrow more. We get a sense of great sadness and recent loss. Even to achieve that outline we must pay attention to the text, to what is and to what is not said. The novel, then asks, some important questions about what we call identity and the place of telling our story or stories in the forming of our identity for ourselves and for others.

This form is daring, experimental, challenging to the reader. There is little story here, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a view of the world that is moving and intelligent. I plan to read Transit and Kudos, the next parts of the trilogy, over the next few months.

This review by Shoshi Ish Horowicz on Shiny New Books blog in 2018 extols the novel’s writerly value.

Outline by Rachel Cusk, published in 2014 by Faber & Faber. 249pp

Shortlisted for Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015.

Please redo your subscription as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of my previous list. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing