In the Fold: dialogue

It's the detail of each individual voice that makes Rachel Cusk's dialogue believable, says John Mullan

Believable dialogue distinguishes the best novelists, yet it is hard to say exactly what makes dialogue good. (Indeed, academic literary criticism usually avoids the topic.) Partly it is a matter of getting the individual characters, their habits and tones. In the Fold has plenty of speakers who make a point of expressing themselves. Rebecca, the wife of the narrator Michael, has a special line in animated dialogue, as when she berates him for his lack of curiosity about the pains of giving birth. "You couldn't stand the idea of me talking about it. That's because the idea of me, of my subjectivity, is disgusting to you." When really angry, even absurdity cannot trip her. "'You're worse than the worst Nazi,' said Rebecca to me. 'Hitler was better than you.'"

One of her complaints against her husband is that he does not ask her enough questions. Like many of the most articulate characters, she likes to use other people to stimulate her soliloquies. All the members of the Hanburys, with whom Michael stays for most of the novel, are like this. Michael, an invited guest, becomes a useful piece in their conversational games. Dialogue in this family is conducted to satirise, to provoke, to vent spleen - but not to exchange anything with another person. In the Fold elaborates the ways in which conversation can avoid mutual understanding. It seems symptomatic that Michael's three-year-old son Hamish has retreated from speech, as if recognising that it opens a whole realm of mockery and exploitation. "Stubborn only in his refusal to speak", he makes rather convincing bell noises and says things that sound like "nofuck" and "tick crot".

Cusk's narrator is a perplexed outsider who enters a privileged English family and observes its eccentricities and its rows. It is a recognisable situation. Recently there has been Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, but it goes back to Brideshead Revisited and Mansfield Park. In the Fold uses the convention to unsettle and amuse at the same time. Michael stands between us and the other characters, making them performers whose words are inflected by his puzzlement or surprise. He has only to note an idiosyncrasy of pronunciation to let you detect the strangeness of a character. Adam's stepmother Vivian, suddenly challenged to feed a host of children, offers boiled potatoes. "Just a bit of pasta will be fine," says her daughter. "'I don't know that we have pasta,' said Vivian. She said it to rhyme with 'faster'. 'That's all anybody eats now, isn't it? When I was little we used to call it worms.'"

Adam's wife, Lisa, comes from the northeast and voices her dim opinion of her husband's bohemian sister, Caris, on a visit to the local Spar shop: "'The thing about Caris,' said Lisa in her 'discreet' voice, putting her head very close to mine and her mouth beside my ear, 'is that she's stuck in the past.' She said it to rhyme with 'gassed'."

This confidence shared in the freezer section sounds weird and oddly threatening. Paul pours scorn on his wife Vivian's devotion to Roman Catholicism, delighting in the fact that she is banned from communion for leaving her first husband, but still keeps "'going back for punishment. To Mass.' He pronounced it to rhyme with 'arse'." Naturally.

When the characters do actually listen as well as talk, it is for some kind of combat. After falling asleep on the sofa, Michael awakes to a conversation that somehow reveals the true condition of Adam's relationship with Lisa and her daughter, Janie, by a previous marriage. They argue for two or three pages over the green peppers that Lisa is adding to the supper, with Janie wailing "I don't like them!" and her stepfather insisting that no concession be made. "'They don't actually taste of anything,' said Lisa." ("Actually" is a favourite word - she shares it with her husband.) But as Adam's anger at the food refusal gets worse, Lisa switches sides:

"You don't like tomatoes. Nobody forces you to eat tomatoes."

"I do like tomatoes."

I heard Lisa say:

"That's a lie."


"I said that's a lie. You're lying. You don't like tomatoes."

Adam said: "I can't believe ..."

It would not be funny if the narrator did not report it so solemnly, the geometry of a family's resentments.

Talk is driven by the characters' passions and interests. Rebecca tells Michael of her mother's fears she has breast cancer, and this tips her into angry complaint about how her parents suck their children into the drama of their lives:

"It's no wonder that none of us have had children of our own," said Rebecca. "We know what they'll be made into - victims, food for the predators!"

"Except you, of course," I said.

"What's that?"

"You. You've had a child."

Rebecca gave a strange little laugh.

"I was thinking about something else," she said vaguely.

Michael and Rebecca have a child, of course. It is a brilliant moment, comic and disturbing, where the character forgets who she is talking to, and forgets herself too. Dialogue, it seems, is animated by self-absorption rather than sympathy.

· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Rachel Cusk for a discussion of In the Fold on August 10 at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Doors open at 6.30pm and entry costs £7. Call 020 7886 9281 or email


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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