When packing for a family trip to Italy, you’ve got to plan well what to bring to read. Anything too easy will be an annoying waste of precious time; books too profound and demanding will never be opened. Rachel Cusk’s novel In The Fold proved to be exactly the right mixture of convenience, vocabulary, and accessible plot.
I first started Cusk’s sixth novel midway through the seven-hour plane ride, when my one-year-old finally fell asleep in my lap. The headphones and little television were too awkward to manage, but luckily I’d slid the book behind my back in lieu of a pillow before becoming anchored by a sleeping baby. The book starts with Michael’s introduction into another lifestyle, one in which men and women never seem to leave each other even after divorce. Attending the birthday party of the sister of a school friend, he finds himself swamped with the characters of Egypt, the old family estate, people who dance lavishly and lend him an expensive car with which to run errands. Later, the mother of the birthday girl tries to kiss him, and the birthday girl herself succeeds. The night is different than any he has experienced before and he is charmed, seduced, by what money, or the assumption of money, can look like.
Several years later, Michael returns to Egypt to aid in the lambing, the patriarch having been hospitalized for surgery. The timing is generous – Michael’s marriage to a woman with too insistent an imagination is crumbling, much like the ledge that falls from the balcony of his house to the sidewalk below, narrowly missing Michael’s form.
Michael is different, his life is different, he sees Egypt differently - partly because of his age, mostly because he is now accompanied by his nearly four-year-old son, Hamish. Also changed are the family members he met at the long-ago party. They have lost something, their rich vitality; they have worn out the impression of luck and birthright. The house and grounds that once seemed to Michael swirled in mists of fortune are now either gray and rainy or garishly bright.
Michael’s marriage falls apart through a series of gasping phone calls, and Hamish becomes more and more strange, especially against the supposedly uber-normal backdrop of the young family of Michael’s original school friend, with whom they are staying. He glimpses and compares other relationships to his own and finds some truth in Tolstoy’s musing on unhappy families and their inherent differences. He learns, finally, not to trust appearances.
What makes Cusk’s writing so compelling, in all of her books, is her challenging and palpable desire to get her sentences exactly right. She is an author to read with a dictionary on hand – you’ll learn something. Her lines are intricate and complex, usually beautiful. If spoken aloud, her sentences have a steely, delicate, demanding cadence.
Another reason to read her books is her deft characterization of even the slightest minors. Each of her fictional people is exquisitely described and circumvented, from the protagonist, Michael, to a brief friend of his wife’s, to a child we see for only a few pages but who performs a despicable act appropriate as a metaphor - he shoots another child with a bow and arrow. Cusk asks a lot from her readers; she asks us to pay attention and commit to long paragraphs hinged on internal debates and dialogue with self. If we trust her, however, she rewards us with brilliance.
I read this novel in airports, trains, strange beds, cold kitchens and with a view of purplish vineyards unseen above my bent head. Rachel Cusk gives Italy some competition. What better recommendation?