In the Fold: readers' responses

Rachel Cusk's admirers at the Guardian book club paid tribute to the truthfulness of In the Fold, despite its difficult narrator, says John Mullan

Anyone who read the first reviews of In the Fold will know that its narrative manner nettled some critics. Rachel Cusk has invented a narrator, Michael, with an idiosyncratic prose style: elliptical, sometimes wordy, full of perplexing comparisons. Few doubted the achievement of its long passages of dialogue or failed to relish the eccentricities of its characters, but some wondered why the story had to be told by such a difficult speaker.

The qualities of the narrator were a theme when Cusk spoke with readers at the Guardian Book Club. One of those who came talked of other narrators (Nicholas Jenkins in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, for instance) who were removed from our sympathy. Was Michael another "pale lens through which to view more clearly what was going on"? In a way, the opposite, said Cusk. Her narrator's self was not "pale" but "totally enclosing". Michael does not "merely open doors" into the novel. Though "reliable", he gives us nothing but his "perceptual world".

Thus the narrative's challenge. One blogger on the Book Club website spoke of "the struggle with the language" for the reader and said that he or she found some of the narrative passages "impenetrable". Another responded that "it was the writing that drew me in" and that the dreamlike passages of description, particularly of "places and houses", were what most "came alive". "The rule of writing the book was that it had to be the consciousness of one person," said Cusk. The difficulties of interpretation that this creates are exactly the novel's subject matter.

The novel works by a principle of omission that further limits our insight into its narrator. An opening chapter describes Michael's first visit to "Egypt", the Hanburys' Somerset hill farm (a pleasanter version of Wuthering Heights, thought one reader), and the rest of the novel takes place 16 years later, with his return visit. This narrative structure, which leaves unexplained Michael's life in between these times, further removes him from ready sympathy and was a matter of discussion with readers.

At least one regretted this "very economic" method, while conceding that it gave a special force to the novel's opening episode. Cusk explained that the novel's isolation of its narrator's vivid recollection was an aspect of his "maleness" - that no woman could have had his "romantic" idea of the Hanbury clan, and indeed of the Alexander family into which he marries. For he has tried to emulate a life that he thinks he has glimpsed. "And that's all you need to know."

About the maleness of the narrative opinions are perhaps always likely to be divided. A (female) reader at the Book Club called Cusk's narration "from a male perspective" "impressive and amazing". A reader blogging on the website was entirely sceptical. The author confessed that the imaginative enterprise had an aspect of mere escape. "I did quite enjoy it ... It was good not having to talk about your mother all the time." It also allows her to have a narrator who can report disinterestedly, and therefore comically, some of the novel's oddest domestic episodes. A discerning reader called the four-page argument between Lisa and Adam about whether Lisa's daughter should eat green peppers "the funniest thing I've read all year" (though also "painful to read").

The word to which Cusk stuck when explaining her intent was "truthful", and to her admirers her fiction, whatever its stylistic flourishes, is exactly this. As one reader expressed her response to In the Fold, "I like your novel because I feel, this is what reality is like." For this reader, it was a feeling not so much of critical admiration as of "recognition".

Cusk was questioned about her now notorious article in the Guardian, describing her disillusioning experiences of belonging to a reading group ("incredibly brave", the questioner called it, with no appearance of euphemism). She spoke of her gloom at the consensual pressure of its discussions. She had found herself longing for its members to disagree or argue or somehow become impassioned about the books they read. By this criterion, she should be pleased by the responses into which readers and critics have been provoked by In the Fold.

· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. From next week he will be discussing Fleshmarket Close by Ian Rankin. Join them for a discussion on Tuesday August 29 at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Doors open at 6.30pm and entry costs £7 including a glass of wine. To reserve a ticket call 020 7886 9281 or email book.club@theguardian.com

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John Mullan

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