"He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its contents remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was."
This is a peculiar book, and I struggle a bit with why I liked it so much. The text is much like the excerpt above, very calm and analytical. We have a narrator who is leaving Britain for Greece, where she's going to teach a short writing course. We don't know much about her, but on the plane she sits next to an older man called only "the neighbour," who immediately tells her about his life and failed marriages. This sets the tone and direction: each of the 10 chapters is a conversation, or rather, a narration, by various people to the narrator, about their lives, successes, failures, and what insights they may (or may not) have gained along the way.
I think part of what I liked about it is that as a woman in my 50s, I do spend time reflecting on things that have happened across my life, for better or for worse. I'm pretty sure I would have found this book a snore at 20 or 30. Now it feels compelling and real, even when told so quietly. The people who tell stories here are far from perfect, and are often not honest with themselves, much less the others around them.
There's one hilarious scene in which the narrator is leading a writing class and asks each of the students to tell her a story. The stories are all over the place, but one student sits quietly, but clearly fuming. At last she says that she signed up for this class to learn to write, not to talk, and she wants a refund. Then she storms out. That's how I envision some readers will feel after reading this book. But I'm one of the students who stayed.
Cusk is a gorgeous writer, and there are little gems throughout:
"I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live."
"There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all."
"Yet I believe, as I say, that it was precisely this underhand act that gave birth to her vitriol, for people are at their least forgiving when they themselves have been underhand, as though they would exact their innocence from you at any price."
So, read it, or don't read it, but I did, and I'm glad.