Wednesday, March 18, 2015

book review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

The backstory: Outline is on the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlist. It's also shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize.

The basics: Outline is billed as a novel of ten conversations. It begins with Faye, a recently divorced writer with two sons, on a flight from London to Athens, Greece, where she will teach writing.

My thoughts: Outline is very much a novel of ideas. There is no real plot to speak of, and its main character is the titular outline--we get but an outline of her through her interactions with strangers and friends alike. Still, I found it was a more cohesive story than I expected. Because it was billed as a novel of ten conversations, I made the mistaken assumption that these ten conversations would be with ten different people (spoiler: they're not.) While we only see some characters once, other appear several times, which helps ground the narrative and makes it feel more like a novel than a chronological series of short stories.

As a novel of conversations, much relies on the conversations themselves. They are fascinating conversations. I want to listen to them. I want to see them, and in some cases, I wanted to join in. In some cases it was because I wanted to ask Faye more questions. She shares details of her life sparingly, which is both beautiful and frustrating. Cusk gets clever with her ideas about writing a few times, including this one, which takes place during a session of her writing workshop:
It was interesting to consider, said the long-haired boy--Georgeou, as my diagram now told me--that a story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all.
Cusk is clearly playing with the form here, and I appreciated this moment precisely because it works both within the narrative and outside of it. It works both in terms of this conversation, but it also works when the reader takes a step back from this scene and contemplates not only this novel as a whole but what stories can do.

Favorite passage:  "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 when you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of."

The verdict: Outline is a beautiful, thoughtful, engaging novel. I love the idea of it, and I loved the time I spent with it. When I turned the last page, however, I found myself wishing there had been at least one wow moment. I expected one in the final chapter, and it didn't come. The lack of that moment kept me from rating this one five stars, but it's still a novel I love and one I hope wins some prizes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: January 13, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Outline from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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  1. I'm actually quite intrigued by this book, more than most of the books on the Bailey's list. That doesn't mean I'll like it, but i do want to read it.

  2. You're right about the "wow" moment - that is what this book needed. It was so beautifully written, but nothing really happened. I don't think I'll remember anything about it in a year.


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