Observer review: Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk's black comedy, Arlington Park, is about compromises and, in particular, the ones women make when they become mothers, says Viv Groskop

Arlington Park
by Rachel Cusk
Faber £14.99, pp240

Novelist Tibor Fischer once noted that Rachel Cusk is particularly adept at treading the line between humour and menace. Never is this more true than with Arlington Park, her sixth novel. Set in suburbia, itself a half-ridiculous, half-sinister backdrop, this novel is balanced on the tragicomic knife-edge where Cusk is most comfortable. She describes a day in Arlington Park, a place to which middle-class parents retreat from London and pretend they have not given up on life, although in their hearts they know they have.

It is a world so horribly real that you desperately want it not to be a truthful depiction. Can women so bored, so self-hating, so self-parodying really exist? Are there really so many men around with so little self-awareness, unconsciously radiating a constant low-level misogyny? At times, the humour is so black that I wonder if Arlington Park really can be described as much of a laugh: we are wincing, here, rather than giggling.

With no clear storyline, the novel is a series of portraits of Middle English semi-housewives (some of them work). Juliet is perhaps the most heartbreaking: once an intelligent, promising girl who was assured she could do anything with her life, she has ended up deferring to her husband Benedict in virtually everything. Their children sniff her weakness and she is humiliated by her schoolboy son. Juliet feels her only hope is that her daughter will know things differently. She imagines telling the people who forecast her a fabulous career that things have turned out this way because her husband murdered her.

As it continues to rain in Arlington Park, Cusk peeks into more dreary, half-lived lives. There is Solly's attempt to live through her lodgers, who seem so alien with their youth and hope. Yet she realises they are not much different from her. Maisie is full of comic rage and has not lost her spark but is turning increasingly angry. Christine is fairly well-balanced but starting to drink a little bit too much.

This is a novel about compromises and, in particular, the ones women make when they become mothers. For Juliet, it is a gradual realisation - that she will be the one making sure there is food in the house, looking after the children, doing the housework. Cusk knows this seam inside out and mines it with startling originality.

There is obviously a feminist thrust to all this and there is an occasional tendency to veer towards Pseud's Corner. But overall, the anger is so real that it lacks any pretension. There is a rawness behind the clever depictions. Cusk has an extraordinary talent for forcing you to read on greedily when you are half-thinking that you would rather not know what becomes of these people - and why should you when they are so miserable anyway? The author has trained a cruel eye on middle-class smugdom and revealed it as a nasty place, ripe for parody but disturbingly familiar. Resolutely anti-escapist, this is an uncomfortable but essential book that reads like a depressive's grim celebration of life's frustrations.


Viv Groskop

The GuardianTramp

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