Review: Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park has the style and intelligence that are the hallmarks of her writing, says James Lasdun

Arlington Park
by Rachel Cusk
256pp, Faber, £14.99

The refined intelligence of Rachel Cusk's writing, with its exhaustive clarifications, elaborate metaphors and distinctly bitter aroma, may not be everybody's cup of tea, but for those who appreciate that particular blend of qualities, her books are a source of rich pleasure. Her last, In the Fold, drew criticism for a certain obtuseness in its prose, but her new novel uses complexity in the service of precision and is generally an impressive piece of work - even though in summary it may not sound very enticing at all.

Its linked stories follow the lives of five youngish women in a leafy suburb over the course of a single rainy day. The women are all well off, all married, all mothers of young children. They have all entered willingly into their humdrum existences here in Arlington Park and yet they are all deeply unhappy: dissatisfied, frustrated, enraged. Their husbands - blurry figures who are either nice and do the washing up or nasty and don't - are partly to blame for this state of affairs by absconding every day to their offices, but the main culprit is motherhood itself, with its relentless cycle of petty, ego-obliterating chores, which Cusk details with venomous relish.

There isn't much in the way of action - a coffee morning, a trip to a mall, a dinner party, with the high points consisting of nothing more spectacular than a change in mood, a haircut, a spasm of rage at a child. And the women themselves, while differentiated in terms of personality and circumstance, grow more and more alike as Cusk probes her way past the particularities of their lives toward her own despairing articulation of what it is to be the woman of the family at this moment in middle England. The only fulfilled character is an Italian lodger who has left her child behind with her husband.

Christine, a drolly jaundiced version of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, emerges as the central figure. She drifts complacently through her day, shopping, preparing for her dinner party that night, and ruminating with comic inanity on the question of how much one should care about those less fortunate than oneself (she seems spawned from the line about Mrs Dalloway's inability to feel anything "for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? But she loved her roses ..."). Her dinner reunites some of the book's dispersed cast and provides its climax in the form of a drunken outburst, in which her very wish to strike an affirming note contrives to seal the whole day in utter blackness: "'You've got to love life,' she said blearily. 'You've got to love just - being alive.'"

Bleak fare, and the abiding preoccupations with greed, selfishness and cruelty (particularly to children) don't exactly cheer it up. And yet in its uncomfortable way this is a gripping, at times funny, often rather beautiful book. Like Woolf - clearly a strong influence - Cusk stakes everything on her ability to make a kind of stately, classical art out of the frictions and details of ordinary life, and it is a testimony to her resourcefulness that she so often succeeds. Her writing takes nothing for granted, applying itself to the most mundane objects and moments - the act of parking a car, the look of an untidy bedroom or a fashion boutique - with an attentiveness that again and again provides that primal joy of literature: the sense of things being seen afresh. One wants to quote her scrupulous, morbidly witty descriptions at length: the atrium of the mall "like an illustration of the chambers of the heart: people were carried upward by the escalators eventually to re-emerge, oxygenated by shopping"; the delicately caught moment of a husband's return from work: " ... she did pity her husband in the moments of his homecoming. When he opened the door, her implication in the domestic life of the household, and his innocence of it, were each at their furthest extent: it was in those minutes that 32 Roderick Road, steeped in her presence, gave off its strongest atmosphere of sordid confinement, like an old shoe. She felt sorry for him as the first rancid wave hit his senses."

And then there are all the vivid little sketches of truculent children, the cars that populate the book like minor characters, the sharp notations of detritus and packaging that connect the wasteful prosperity of Arlington Park to the larger wreckage of the world beyond.

Readers looking for a fair and balanced account of motherhood or of life in general will object to Cusk's version of both, and it's certainly true that she stacks the deck in favour of her vision of things, resorting to some pretty broad caricature when it suits her purposes and injecting grotesque notes that at times feel nastily gratuitous. But the many passages where observation and analysis, detail and mood, move gracefully in step with each other, powerfully illuminating the characters' lives, do much to compensate for these flaws.

"Style," Stendhal wrote, "consists in adding to a given thought all the circumstances calculated to produce the whole effect that the thought ought to produce." Many of Cusk's contemporaries have a distinct manner, but Cusk seems to me one of very few in possession of a style in Stendhal's sense, which is to say a way of writing that expresses in every sentence its author's singular habits of mind. You have to have a mind in the first place for that to happen, and Arlington Park is worth reading for the rarity of this alone.

· James Lasdun's latest novel is Seven Lies (Cape)


James Lasdun

The GuardianTramp

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