Giller Shortlist: Transit by Rachel Cusk

When I read Rachel Cusk’s Giller shortlisted novel Outline two years ago, I had a luke-warm response to it. In fact, I returned it to the library after reading only half the book. So when Transit made it onto the list this year, I felt a little… apprehensive.

Well there is something to be said for low expectations, because I liked it. “Love” might be too strong a word, but “like” will do.

So I asked myself : what’s different? (And I know I’m not the only one who didn’t get along with Outline.) I think my issue with Outline was that I couldn’t connect with the characters. I didn’t care about anyone in the book, so there was no reason to keep reading.

The structure and style of writing in Transit is the same, but in Transit Faye is closer to home. The people she runs into and speaks to and shares stories about are closer to her own life. For this reason I think there is more opportunity to get to know her. According to Cusk, in an interview with Trevor Corkum at 49th Shelf, ““Outline describes a state of increasing detachment from the contract for living, yet the narrator does live.” In Transit she “wanted to examine the terms of that survival and what kind of future it suggested.”

Some of the people she runs into, or meets up with in this book that contribute to a more complete picture of Faye are: an ex-boyfriend who is since married with a daughter, the men doing renovations on her apartment, a couple of writers she meets at a literary event, one of Faye’s writing students, her friend Amanda who works in fashion, a man she goes on a date with, and her cousin Lawrence and the guests at his house party.

I liked Faye’s basement neighbours, who seemed totally unnecessarily nasty to Faye. But at least they were entertaining.

An opportunity missed, I think, is getting to see Faye through the eyes of her children. They are staying with their dad during Transit, due to renovations at their new apartment, so there are brief mentions of her sons and a couple of phone calls but that’s it. Maybe she’s saving it for book #3…

I thought the best part of the book was the last chapter when Faye is visiting Lawrence’s house and the children are present; it adds some interest to the story to read about the adults and children interacting with each other. In the interview at 49th Shelf, Cusk says that she is surprised “that there hasn’t been more awareness of its central theme, which is children and the false morality that is displayed in so many of our dealings with them. I think I would point to the last chapter of the novel as the expression of my own views about the true nature of responsibility.” I wouldn’t have picked up on that myself.

Rachel Cusk is good at getting details right; the kind that make you think “Yes!”. For example, have you ever spoken back to the voice that is mysteriously or magically able to give you directions when you’re driving?

A friend of mine, depressed in the wake of of his divorce, had recently admitted that he often felt moved to tears by the concern for his health and well-being expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging, and by the automated voices on trains and buses, apparently anxious that he might miss his stop; he actually felt something akin to love, he said, for the female voice that guided him while he was driving his car, so much more devotedly than his wife ever had.

And her idea about marriage…

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.

In the end, for me, Faye’s character still isn’t quite enough to pull me into the book entirely. She still feels too remote, like she’s being held at arm’s length. Which is probably intentional and says something about Faye as a person, but for me it doesn’t work. I am now, however, curious about how I’ll feel about the third book in this series and will probably read it when it comes out.

For a long time, I said, I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there. But my decision to create a disturbance by renovating my house had awoken a different reality, as though I had disturbed a beast sleeping in its lair. I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realized is that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.

How do you feel about Outline and Transit? Have you read any of her other books? Do you think it has a good chance of winning the Giller this year?

Further Reading:

Review at Buried in Print: “Some readers will inevitably feel as though they are standing on the sidewalk, observing the lights from the darkness. All the glitter disorienting, maybe even unpleasant. Other readers will pull open the door and take a seat. Marvel at the kaleidoscopability of it all.

Review at The Book Binder’s Daughter: “There is always the feeling in a Cusk novel that a simple description… has a much heavier and deeper meaning than what we encounter at first glance.”

Review in The New York Times: ““Transit” is a calm novel about chaos. Faye is having her tatty new apartment renovated, and the noise and squalor reflect the dishevelment in each corner of her life.” and “…Ms. Cusk’s novel bears down on topics like power and powerlessness, freedom and fate, love and its opposite. The most important thing we have in this world, “Transit” suggests, is other people, and it’s very hard to find the good ones…”






39 thoughts on “Giller Shortlist: Transit by Rachel Cusk

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    Well, I’m glad you got a bit more out of this one than Outline. I do remember there being a good incisive passage or two about marriage in Outline. I will have copied them out in my book list file for the year.

    • Naomi says:

      I remember noting quite a few passages I liked in Outline, but that just didn’t seem to be enough for me. I did find this one more enjoyable. Hooray!

  2. theresakishkan says:

    I enjoyed her earlier books more than this. Arlington Park, for instance…I’m reading Minds of Winter now, a powerful book. And thought Eden’s novel extraordinary. So that’s where my preferences sit….

    • Naomi says:

      I will have to check out one of her earlier books sometime, out of curiosity.

      Those are good choices – I’ve read them both. I absolutely loved Son of a Trickster. Just finished Minds of Winter and still processing it. I would love to know what you think of the way it all came together at the end when you’re done. 🙂

  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    It’s strange to me that people were hesitant about the first book, but the author is going forward with a trilogy. I do know the feeling of wanting to finish a series despite disappointments, though. I have this vampire romance series that I’ve roped myself into….Ugh. You’ll see a review next week.

  4. Café Society says:

    Given what you’ve said about these novels I think I shall wait until the third book is available and I have the opportunity to see the picture whole. I do worry though when you say that Cusk ‘is surprised “that there hasn’t been more awareness of its central theme, which is children and the false morality that is displayed in so many of our dealings with them. I think I would point to the last chapter of the novel as the expression of my own views about the true nature of responsibility.”’ If readers are not picking up on what the author considers to be the central theme you really have to ask how good a job she has done in communicating it.

    • Naomi says:

      I was surprised to read that. I put it in my review, partly hoping someone would jump on it and say they noticed that theme… or not. I would say it’s only the theme of the last chapter, but maybe if I read the book again with that in mind I’d see something more…

  5. buriedinprint says:

    I can imagine how much trepidation you were feeling about now having to return to a group of books when you hadn’t enjoyed the first one enough to finish. I’m glad you felt a little more interested in the second. (Very kind of you to quote my response to the book. Thank you.)

    I’ve read Arlington Park and The Lucky Ones, which are rather different, more traditional in some ways, but some themes and preoccupations persist (marriage, identity, roles of wife/mother etc.).

    Novels about ideas have captured the Giller before (like Fifteen Dogs, by current jury member, Andre Alexis) but I’m not sure whether this is the book this year’s jury would agree to select as the winner. I’m curious to see what they’ve agreed upon. By then I’ll be finished the shortlisted books, but I’m still waiting on copies of two from the longlist.

    That’s an interesting quote about the author’s intentions. I can see where the theme of mothering is prominent in the book, and the theme of superficiality, but I haven’t sensed a direct connection there so far. Maybe because, in the book, we as readers can set aside her role of mothering easily, because the children are rarely present as characters but, of course, in Faye’s mind, she likely never completely forgets her identity as a mother, even when she’s focussed on other things temporarily?

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good point. And, yes, I can see the mothering theme – she does often have her children in her mind. Maybe the theme is strong in the author’s mind because she has all three books floating around in there all the time, whereas we have only read two of them so far.

      So my hypothesis is that I will like the third one even more than the second – I’m even lookinig forward to it! I really should try one of her older books sometime.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I echo Cafe Society’s comment – it comes across as a little arrogant that she seems to be implying that the readers are at fault. If in general readers aren’t picking up on a theme, that suggest she hasn’t succeeded in getting it across.

    • Naomi says:

      In fairness to Rachel Cusk, she was asked what surprised her most regarding questions/comments about her book. But yes, I would agree that if readers aren’t picking it up, then maybe it’s not coming across strongly enough.

  7. bookbii says:

    Interesting review. I have found myself quite fascinated by the idea of Rachel Cusk as an author but haven’t got around to reading her yet. I like the sound of the premise of Outline, but have heard very mixed views about her work. I suspect I’ll pick her up soon, but perhaps not until next year. I think you’ve piqued my interest again!

    • Naomi says:

      Outline does seem to be a love it or hate it kind of book. Although hate is probably too strong a word. If you wait another year or two, you’d be able to continue on to the third book without the wait!

  8. whatmeread says:

    I didn’t really enjoy Outline that much, as you know, but since she apparently wrote the same kind of book again, I’m not sure what she’s up to. She’s obviously experimenting in some way, but I felt her tactic of having other people relate their stories while telling little about herself was too distancing. The problem with setting ourselves these challenges is that we end up sometimes having to read more than one book by someone who we didn’t enjoy the first time. I’m going through that now. Luckily, as with you, I’m liking my second Damon Galgut better than the first. However, the Booker and Walter Scott judges have a sad habit of picking multiple books by the same authors (you’d think there would be enough good books around not to have to do that) and there are several I am not looking forward to at all, based on my initial experience with them.

  9. Deepika Ramesh says:

    Thank you, Naomi, for this post. I have read Cusk’s ‘Outline’ which worked for me. But my love for ‘Outline’ was heavily coloured by her memoir ‘Aftermath — On Marriage and Separation’. In her memoir ‘Aftermath’, Cusk is confused and depressed; her marriage has plummeted. Cusk does an autopsy of her marriage, of the roles that each partner played, the futility of the institutions called Marriage and Family, and in her own time explores the shadow that her failed relationship has cast on her children, her capacity in the society, and the modified aspects of her life. Her pain is sharp; it is not hard to empathise. However, I would have loved to understand the book viscerally rather than being lectured on Greek drama and Roman stories. I wanted Cusk to be more honest instead of being condescending and self-absorbed. The book worked for me in parts, especially the spots where she identified her contradictory views. She owned up to it. Otherwise, it felt like listening to a hotheaded acquaintance who loathes marriage just because it didn’t work for her. That bias is an anathema to memoir-writing right? I am not sure if I would read ‘Transit’, Naomi. But I am still adding it to my TBR.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s interesting to hear about her memoir and what you thought of it! I can see how knowing things in the author’s life might have shed more light on her character in Outline. If I had all the time in the world I’d be curious to pick it up. Maybe I’ll look up a review of it instead. 🙂

  10. annelogan17 says:

    I haven’t read any of Rachel’s books, and to be honest, hearing her read from it a few weeks ago didn’t spark much interest either. Like you, the characters feel a bit distant, which I really struggle with as a reader, so i’ll probably pass this one by.

  11. madamebibilophile says:

    I’ve read enough about Outline and Transit to pique my interest, but I do wonder if I’ll find the detachment of the character hard-going. Generally I need a character to root me in a story.

    • Naomi says:

      The writing is very good and the style is interesting, if not my preferred way of telling a story. Some people absolutely love it, so it might be worth a try!

  12. Liz Dexter says:

    I’ve read one of hers, and really didn’t like the very detached narrative and kind of clever-clever way of writing. I don’t mind a detached and cold author or narrator, but have to have something to hook onto. My husband disliked it, too, and we had taken it away on holiday to read together! I have checked, and it was “The Bradshaw Variations” – review here: and it made my Worst Books of 2009 list! So I probably won’t be reading this trilogy!

    • Naomi says:

      Oh dear, your criticisms of her other book sound very similar to mine of Outline, and also of Transit to a lesser extent. I even sometimes had a similar feeling of it being an “exercise in writing”. I guess her style must be a matter of taste.
      Well, I guess these are books you don’t need to add to your list! 😉

  13. The Cue Card says:

    Yeah I felt the detachment & unhappiness of Faye in Outline a bit difficult to plow through — though I liked some of the writing in the book & just the thoughts on the relationship between men & women. It almost felt like nonfiction in a way. I also have some trepidation about picking up Transit — but will likely get to it in 2018. Will they give Cusk the Giller?

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! It felt a bit like nonfiction to me, too.

      I don’t think Transit will win the Giller, but you never know… (It wouldn’t be my pick!)

  14. DoingDewey says:

    I really admire your dedication in getting to this prize list! Reading a prize list sounds like fun to me, but so far I’ve not wanted to enough to make the time for it, in part because I find the length of the lists and speed of winner selection intimidating! I’m glad you nejoyed this more than the first book 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Last year I was a bit nervous about the deadline, but this year I haven’t felt worried at all. Maybe if it was for real… 🙂
      It *is* a lot of fun to read along with the jury and compare and make guesses!

  15. lauratfrey says:

    Well I’m a weirdo, because I LOVED Outline, like, one of my top books that year, but I hated this one and DNF’d before I’d hit 50 pages, which I don’t often do (but it’s a short book, so I let it go sooner). I really disliked the dialogue between her and her ex that she ran into, to me it was so unrealistic and pretentious, and for no good reason that I could figure out (I don’t mind pretentious characters, usually!)

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