Yes, it was a wretched winter.
But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.
Over four weeks, I’m introducing you to each of the books.
by Rachel Cusk
FSG. 249 pp.
Cusk has attempted a fascinating experiment in this, her eighth novel (she’s also written two excellent memoirs). The novel’s narrator, Faye, is a writer who has been invited to teach a writing workshop in Athens. We learn very little about Faye in the book, other than that her marriage has recently come to an end and that she has two children, but we learn a great deal about everyone she meets on her brief excursion to Greece. There’s the wealthy seductive businessman she sits next to on the plane, who talks intimately about his three failed marriages, his arcane financial doings, his messy quarrels with family and friends, and his hapless schizophrenic son. There’s the dynamic feminist writer, who for years wrote books that were obscure and little noticed, but eventually became a symbol of fulfillment for the women’s movement, achieving a late-in-life fame that has turned her vain and self-important. There is the publisher friend whose beloved book company has tanked, a fellow writer who was recently mugged and beaten so badly that she has lost the sense of who she really is. People tell Faye the stories of their lives, with the emphasis always on relationships between men and women, on marriage and divorce, on love and loneliness, success and failure. Faye merely listens, interjecting enough questions and ironic comments to keep the stories unfolding. Her own story is somehow beside the point—though there is a bit of a “story” when the garrulous businessman puts the make on her.
What distinguishes Outline
is the richness of the author’s imagination—her ability to make characters come alive merely through observation and conversation.
In one of my favorite chapters in the book the narrator asks her students to write something about what they have observed or overheard on their way to class. The assignment provokes revelations and reactions that are utterly stunning. One student, however, objects to the session, feels that nothing useful about writing has been taught, when in fact everything useful has been taught. The students have each “written” a powerful story just by relating what something they saw on their way to school has triggered in them. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like an exciting read to you. But take my word: the book, a work like nothing you’ve read before, is indeed exciting.