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Rachel Cusk has taken to heart the oft-heard message to all writers: Write what you know. In fact, she is fully in support of this, having claimed to interviewers in the past few years that she thinks the novel should reflect more of real life as it happens to people like her. And so, in the aftermath of a difficult divorce and the start of a new life, Cusk brings us TRANSIT (the second in a series of memoir-ish novels about her post-breakup existence, the first one being 2015’s OUTLINE). The story of a woman who moves back to her old neighborhood in London after a divorce with two young sons in tow is a sparse but superlative look at one female writer’s (that distinction is important in the narrative) means of making herself over anew as she moves into a spouseless middle age.

The first person she runs into when she moves into a less-than-attractive flat in her old community is her former boyfriend, Gerard. She has moved away, lived abroad and found fame with her artistic work. He, on the other hand, is still wearing the same shirt she didn’t like him in. “It’s strange that you always changed everything and I changed nothing and yet we’ve both ended up in the same place.” Faye feels as if she is stuck inside a möbius strip, starting over where she originally began her adult life so many eons ago.

Gerard means well, but Faye finds it an off-putting comment. And, just like that, we are off to the subtle proverbial races, Faye trying hard to understand that returning to this old place effectively could queer the whole trajectory of her independent life. Is she the same person she was then but hasn’t realized it yet? In between the battles of being a single working mom and a public literary figure, Faye wanders through some very moving and mundane experiences (including being full-on kissed by an overactively drunken manager of a literary event in the pouring rain).

"TRANSIT takes us places we’ve never been before or places we are about to see for ourselves when the time is right. That makes it a timeless and unassailably exciting book."

Everyone asked for an opinion in this story gives Faye food for thought without even realizing it. She keeps getting her hair colored over and over, trying to stave off the growing gray patches. Her hairdresser keeps trying to get her to go lighter and lighter. “Even if it’s not what you naturally are,” he said, “I think you’ll look more real that way.” A terrific moment of unplanned chaos interrupts her reverie, and this becomes one more highly charged but lightly explored moment in an increasingly introspective arc of events.

The folly of the artist as a real person is highlighted at the literary festival (where she meets the aforementioned Romeo). The rain is pouring down, and this genius heading up the event doesn’t bother to bring the authors through a protected walkway to the lecture hall. Instead, he drags them through tumultuous rain, and a freezing Faye sits cold and wet through the strange and elucidating question-and-answer period with an excited audience. The life of this woman, even in the places where she finds great success, is rife with discomfort and primal embarrassment. TRANSIT moves us from one moment of her life to another with a swift and devastating blow each time. The chapter in which she talks to a woman who has a strange story of her own to tell and needs Faye to help her is disarmingly funny but also deeply sad. Cusk’s spare prose and her efficient way of stripping a moment down to its most important elements help make the novel a memorable collection of experiences in one writer’s life, real and imagined.

Cusk is a serious lady, a serious writer, a serious student of human emotional turmoil. As she experiences her own, she gives us all a glimpse into the worst parts of ourselves (especially if you are struggling through middle age as she is). TRANSIT is a compelling work, but don’t imagine that we now really know what she is up to in real life. She would be very disappointed if you approached her realistic fiction without appreciation for the fiction part. It is hard to separate what the real Cusk is like and how Faye represents her emotional neediness and worry. Don’t say anything to Cusk, though, if you meet her. Well, don’t say anything like “I feel like I know you!” because I am sure her intent is just that and the reality of the work is quite the opposite. She is sly and cunning, and would never just dump her dirty laundry out for us. Instead she has mined it for gold, and that is what she places before us in this slim but profound volume.

TRANSIT takes us places we’ve never been before or places we are about to see for ourselves when the time is right. That makes it a timeless and unassailably exciting book.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 27, 2017

by Rachel Cusk

  • Publication Date: December 19, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250151791
  • ISBN-13: 9781250151797