In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

04/09/05, The Daily Telegraph

No one does relentlessly unhappy characters, and relentlessly analytical and garrulous unhappiness, like Rachel Cusk. Who wouldn’t be depressed, faced with the prolix and dense interiorities she gives them? Although her celebrated first novel, Saving Agnes, was leavened by an ironically sly wit, Agnes Day herself was an irritating creature: her malaise, on hindsight, appears to be nothing more than a tendency to overanalyse her situation in life, leading to a gradual disappearance down the vortex of convoluted cogitations. The mannered sub-Jamesian prose, although rigorously intelligent, created a viscosity through which the narrative could barely move. Cusk abandoned any attempt at levity, ironic or otherwise, with her next novel, The Temporary, a harrowing look at a fundamental untenability in man-woman relations, but she retained her cerebral, self-important and verbose narrator. In that novel, Ralph Loman and Francine Snaith, each very differently scarred victim of his and her pasts, are so isolated in their own unmalleable and tortured selfhoods that even a one-night stand has disastrous consequences. If you reduce the plotline down to the bare details, it looks emaciated, but the point of the book was not so much the story as the light it shone on the minutest springs and motives and effects of human action. But all the contorted and tortuous introspection the narrator compulsively conferred on them made for an airless and smothering book.

In her latest novel, In the Fold, Cusk has radically curbed her tendency to opaque verbosity. The result is flintier, gripping, and surely paced. Characters still use words such as ‘concupiscent’ and ‘ruination’ in their daily exchanges, and release sentences such as ‘I’ve never felt the right sort of pain. I’ve felt the pain of being wrong but I’ve never felt the pain of being right. I’ve never suffered out of forbearance’ for common or garden consumption. It is possible that people who spend too much time with luvvies or artists could bring themselves to say, ‘I feel erased’, but to follow it with, ‘You’re like a room I’m trapped in that just gets colder and colder’ must be classified as ironic, if only to maintain the illusion of a reviewer’s charitable side. Despite these and the occasional cloudy sentence or two, In the Fold is an edgy conflation of the modern pastoral with the novel of psychological realism, a work in which human relationships are poisonous studies in failure and despair, innocence a shifting and often irretrievable memory and the grip of the past both inescapable and oddly insubstantial.

As a university student, Adam is invited to Egypt Hill, the farm of his friend, Michael Hansbury, to Michael’s sister, Caris’s eighteenth birthday party. He discovers a magical world of bohemian living, flexible moral boundaries, a freedom and ease, which, we are invited to guess, is lacking from his life. As a grown man, Adam finds himself in a marriage that has started to reek of failure. His wife, Rebecca, self-obsessed and volatile, is violently recriminatory, while their three-year-old son, Hamish, has still not learnt how to speak. They live in Rebecca’s arty, trendy, rich parents’ gorgeous Georgian house in Bath but when the balcony collapses seconds after Michael passes under it, it triggers off an impulse in him to stand back from his life and take stock. He takes his son and revisits Egypt Hill to give Michael a hand at spring lambing. There, the gilded myth of the Hanbury idyll is shattered to bits; Michael discovers that the Hanburys are riven by deceit, rivalry, bitterness, while the pastoral setting itself is being swallowed, slowly but inexorably, by real estate development. When he returns to Bath, he discovers that Rebecca has moved one step closer to making a decision about their stultifying marriage.

Traditionally, the pastoral has offered its actors a glimpse into the fragility of its artifice, thereby enabling them to face outer reality with renewed vigour and wisdom. Cusk uses this idea, too, except for her, both the idyll and reality remain equally wanting, equally blasted, and there are no sustaining worlds or relationships. If anything, this novel is even bleaker than her previous The Lucky Ones, but despite the first-person narration by Michael, Cusk walls off his history from the readers, creating an oddly unknowable figure. And the final move by Rebecca, although driving home Cusk’s recurring point in most of her books – the inescapability of the past – is hollow, unconvincing and faintly bathetic.
In the lambing sections of the book, Cusk’s writing reaches a precision, a sort of poised balletic grace, towards which she has felt her way in her last few books but has only now achieved. Her observations are startling in their metaphorical exactness, the texture of details cracklingly crisp and new, and the insight into the hell of human relationships too close to the bone for comfort.