viernes, 30 de septiembre de 2011

Several characters in search of a plot – The Country Life by Rachel Cusk

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk presents several promises, but eventually seems to break most of them. When Stella Benson, a twenty-nine-year-old, leaves home suddenly to take up a private care assistant’s job in darkest south England, it is clear that she is running away. From what we do learn later, but by then we perhaps care rather less about the circumstances.

From the start there was a problem with the book’s point of view. Stella presents a first person narrative couched in a conventional past tense. Events – albeit from the past – unfold along a linear time frame, but despite her removed perspective, she apparently never reflects beyond the present she reports. Given Stella’s character, this may be no more than an expression of her scattered immediacy, but that only becomes clear as we get to know her via her actions. This apparent contradiction of perspectives has to be ignored if the book is to work, but once overcome The Country Life is worth the effort.

Stella - to say the least – is not a very competent person. But then no-one else in this little southern village seems to have much about them. She becomes a live-in personal carer for Martin Madden, a disabled seventeen-year-old who lives with his rather dotty parents on their apparently luxurious farm. Stella has neither experience, nor presumably references, nor the pre-requisite driving licence. Her employers don’t check anything, despite their reported bad experiences in the past. Thus Stella becomes part of a rather mad family called Madden.

Stella steadily learns more about the Maddens. They have their past, both collectively and individually. Pamela, a wiry, sun-tanned matriarch, is married to Piers. They have children, all of whom seem to have inherited different mixes of the foibles on offer. There’s a local scandal or two, rumours of mis-treatment, sexual impropriety and more, but it always seems to dissolve into innuendo. This, perhaps, is the country life.

Stella herself is incompetent in the extreme. She gets sunburnt - in England(!), soils her shoes with melted tar from the road, gets drunk several times, falls into the pool, gets lost, cuts up her clothing, behaves inappropriately, steals on demand and can’t find the garden gate. It’s quite a week. As the book progresses, it seems unsure whether it should be a sit-com or a farce.

But at the centre of The Country Life is Stella’s developing relationship with Martin. He is used to being the centre of attention and knows how to play the part, how to manipulate. He may, it seems, have inherited much from his mother and perhaps a lot less from his father.

The Country Life is beautifully written. It is both funny and engaging. Stella’s life becomes increasingly a farce, however, and this crowds out some of the other themes that might have come more interestingly to the fore. Rachel Cusk’s writing is always fluent, perhaps overdone here and there, but when you are that good at it, a little over-egging just adds to the richness.

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