Book review: ‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”

Rachel Cusk, ‘Outline’

Our narrator, a woman writer, goes to Athens to teach in a summer writing school. We don’t know much about her, but starting from her journey on the plane until her last day in Athens, we learn about people she acquittances with. A neighbour in her flight, a fellow teacher, old friend, writers, her students, a new tenant in her rented apartment. These people talk to her about various subjects in life – their marriage, relationships, career, family.

This book is about conversation our narrator had with these people, yet somehow, I feel that she must be an excellent listener. I imagine she’s an observer, she’s quiet, calm, and intelligent. She listens well and she chooses her words carefully. I imagine that people like her. You must like someone enough to tell her about your life – your loss, despair, and failure.

To say what the book is about is quite difficult. What I can say that the conversations our narrator have invited us to have an inner dialogue with ourselves. For example, I really like (and probably relate) to a conversation between her and a young friend. This young woman, Elena, told her about her bad habit in wanting to know everything at the beginning of a relationship.

‘… if the relationship is going to end, in other words, I want to know it and confront it as soon as possible. Sometimes,’ she said, ‘this process is so quick that the relationship is over almost as soon as it has begun. Very often that I have felt that my relationships have had no story, and the reason is because I have jumped ahead of myself, the way I used to turn the pages of a book to find out what happens in the final chapter. I want to know everything straight away. I want to know the content without living through the time span.’

Elena reminds me of myself. The way I terrorised a man I was with to provide a conclusion of our relationship (women are crazy like that, lol).

The beautiful thing about this novel is how easy and natural it is for readers to connect with the ‘conversations’. The book does not even try to convince the readers, it simply tells us about some conversations. We probably have had similar discourse with our friends or even strangers we met on a flight – there’s nothing particularly unusual about the conversations. But that’s life, isn’t it? We move from one conversation to another, one person to another, one day to the next – nothing particularly unusual, yet it is unique on its own.

This edition of Outline is published by Faber and Faber, 2018.

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