The Country Lifeby Rachel Cusk, Jenny Sterlin
Stella Benson answers a classified ad and arrives in a tiny Sussex village, home to a family that is somewhat larger than life. Her hopes for the Maddens may be high, but her station among them - as au pair to their irascible son Martin - is undeniably low. It soon becomes clear that Stella falls short of even the meager specifications her new role requires, most noticeably in the area of "aptitude for the country life." What could possibly have driven her to leave her home, job and life in London for such rural ignominy? Why has she severed all contact with her parents? Why is she so reluctant to talk about her past? And who, exactly, is Edward?
THE COUNTRY LIFE is a rich and subtle novel about embarrassment, awkwardness and being alone; about families, or the lack of them; and about love in some peculiar guises. It is the utterly charming, captivating story of one young woman's adventures in self-discovery.]
“A sophisticated confection . . . For this delightful novel about the governess from hell, maybe only the word 'wicked' will do.” The New York Times Book Review
“A brilliant oxymoron--a serious farce so subtle that its command of the reader must called insidius . . . Bright, candid, and modestly humorous, Stella Benson lures us into complicity . . . Cusk's ability to keep us interested in innumerable human collisions is uncanny. We may finally learn Stella's secrets, but she remains as fascinatingly indeciperable as anyone we know.” The New Yorker
“Enchanting . . . A funny, modern Jane Eyre combined with an Anne Tyler-esque tale about escaping from the pressures of an unhappy urban life.” Newsday
“An oddly ingratiating social comedy . . . Smart, literate, offbeat, confiding . . . A pleasure.” The Boston Globe
“Hilarious . . . Stella is strange because strangeness is part of the human condition; she's just a little more aware of it than most people.” Village Voice Literary Supplement
“Smart, charming, and often outright hilarious.” Entertainment Weekly
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I was to take the four o'clock train from Charing Cross to Buckley, a small town some three miles, I had been told, from the village of Hilltop. The short notice at which I was required had left me with little time for more than a glance at the area on a map, where I had learned only that the two names belonged to the lower part of the county of Sussex, and where I had gained the impression of a series of subdivisions eventually resulting in a narrow scribble of road and terminating in the dot of my destination. The prospect of travelling away from London was an unnatural one. Some gravitational principle appeared to be being defied in doing so. Tracing the route with my finger, the distance seemed more unsustainable as it grew, and once beyond the city's edge took on in my mind the resistance of an inhospitable element, as if I were now forging out to sea or tunnelling underground. To me the town of Buckley was as remote an outpost as an Antarctic station, and, still further, the village of Hilltop represented there by a dot, as I have said seemed to promise neither oxygen nor human life.
It was normal, of course, that I should feel some anxiety about my departure. Not only was I setting out to a place I had never been before; I was also embarking on a kind of life about which I knew nothing; and what is more, stripping myself of all that was familiar to me into the bargain. We are all, in our journey through life, navigating towards some special, dreamed-of place; and if for some reason we are thrown off course, or the place itself, once reached, is not what we hoped for, then we must strike out at whatever risk to set things right. Not all of these forays need have the drastic flavour of my own leap into the unknown; some are such subtle turnings that it is only afterwards that one looks back and sees what it was all leading to. But to drift, blown this way and that, or for that matter to pursue a wrong course for the sake of fear or pride, costs time; and we none of us have too much of that.
I had been given only three days in which to make my arrangements, and as these were absolute required a consideration at once speedy and measured. Fortunately, I have a keen organizational facility, and am able to marshal a group of factors with speed. Judging the letters to be the most important of my duties, I accorded them first place. The tying up of all affairs concerning my flat had therefore to be put second, although the immediate anxiety caused by this deferral tempted me momentarily to promote it. The packing of my suitcase was relegated to the hours prior to catching my train.
As I had expected, the letters took far more time than was really given the uncertainty with which I could prophesy their effect their due. I found myself wretchedly unable to achieve the result I desired, despite the fact that, if I had been honest, I would have admitted that I had been writing such letters secretly in my head ever since I was a child. The problem with the letters, as they stood in my mind, was that the ramblings to which I had given subconscious voice over the years lacked the economy crucial to the rendering on the page of an atmosphere of severance. As one sheet became four closely written on both sides I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the confessional, injured tone I had adopted. Such a tone, I realized, was useful only if covertly or otherwise one wanted to continue relations with the person addressed, but must get things off one's chest first. I tore up the letters and began afresh. Now, however, I spurned elaboration too forcefully. The tone was bitter, and the sentiments cruel with abbreviation. I worked late into the night and eventually achieved something which, if far from perfect, at least skirted the neighbouring chasms of self-pity and vitriol with relative composure.
4 Hercules Street London
Dear Mr Farquarson
I am writing to inform you of my resignation, with immediate effect, from the firm. I do apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
4 Hercules Street London
Dear Mother and Father
I know that this letter will come as a surprise, and probably a shock, to you, but I suppose that if we all lived our lives only to avoid worrying our parents nothing much would ever be achieved. The fact is that I have been unhappy for a long time. While I don't exactly blame you for this I still think that it probably has a lot to do with you, so on balance I think it would be better for me if we didn't see each other any more. I am going away, so that should be that. I have told Edward what I am intending to do. Please don't try to find me.
PS. I know you will be worrying about the flat. Perhaps you should just sell it, as I obviously won't be needing it any more. I've left quite a few things here. You can sell those too. Please don't be angry with me.
4 Hercules Street London
I hope you had a good holiday. You will have noticed that I was not around when you got back. That is because I have gone away for good, so don't worry that I've had an accident or anything. I'm not telling you where I'm going, and I'm sure you've got better things to do than try and find out. I'm sorry I can't explain this any better, but I don't think you would understand. I hope you have a good life.
PS. I can just see your face while you're reading this!
I sealed these letters, there at the table in the middle of the night, just in case I was tempted to look at them again in the morning and tear them up. This later proved both an insufficient deterrent and an irksome obstacle to my crossing out that postscript in the letter to Edward, which I was driven to do after waking in the night, resealing the envelope with Sellotape.
My letter to my parents at least had the advantage of saving me time in consideration of the problem of my flat. While writing, I had had the opportunity to think things through, and had found that the very action of putting pen to paper had simplified the issue. The flat was not, in the very strictest sense, my responsibility; this sense being that although I had enjoyed unchallenged dominion over it since the day of its purchase, in fact it belonged to my parents. I had intended to rent it out for them, believing, in the way that a small sum of money can repay in the mind debts several times its size, that my remaining time in London was so elastic that it could encompass ambitions which extended far beyond it; but I now saw this intention for what it was, a valedictory gesture designed to solicit the approval of those whose fury was the one certain outcome of my move to the country. It was to avoid precisely this type of intrigue that I was going; and I discharged the whole fraught matter without delay. In doing so I had the sensation of lightness I remembered from Rome, when it had been enough to convince me that I could jump from high up over the city where I stood and would not fall. Feeling-it again, I could admit that its absence since had worried me. I had been relying on the memory of it and my memory had become a tattered paper, like the letter which sustains love between people far away from each other.
Of course, I wanted to leave things in as orderly a state as possible, so that when my parents eventually called at the scene they would find nothing to displease them; no trace, in short, of myself. This process gave me a feeling, which increased as the hours laboured by, of being gradually but forcefully expelled, not just from my home but from all that had constituted my life up until that point. So unaccountable, in fact, did I begin to feel that had I not been so busy I would probably have committed some criminal or otherwise irresponsible act. Let me say that the most powerful part of the sensation by far lay in my feeling not of being pushed out, but rather of being drawn irresistibly towards something new. My pristine flat had the still-warm, thronging emptiness of a station after a train has departed elsewhere. I should add here, lest this seems too poetic, that my great clean-out went beyond the merely sanitary and involved what could without exaggeration be called the destruction of all evidence that I had ever existed. The purge was far from easy, for my mementoes I suppose inevitably reminded me of forgotten episodes, both good and bad. I had not thought my life to be so large, and occasionally, as I wrestled with it there on the sitting room floor, I felt myself to be engaged in mortal combat with a creature which writhed and bit as I sought to slay it. At other times I felt such a drowsy reluctance infuse my limbs that my resolution wavered in the very midst of its work. In these moments I felt quite outside myself, as if I didn't care whether I stayed or went, nor indeed about anything that might happen to me. Once or twice I came upon something particularly sentimental and was almost drowned in a wave of self-pity and regret, wondering why it was that I felt so keen to give away every vestige of love I had ever earned. Minutes later some article of shame would provide a bitter chaser for my sickened palate, and I would come alive with purpose, working faster to free myself as if from beneath a fallen beam.
Towards evening I unearthed a packet of letters, addressed to me at school, which my father had written to me. They did not come, I should explain, directly from him my father found emissions of feeling difficult, and any betrayal of fondness was always followed by a pantomime of disownment but rather via the persona of Bounder, our dog.
Kennel House Canine Close Barking
How are you? Is it raining `cats and dogs' there like it is here? I've had to repair the woof of my kennel as it keeps leaking. Sometimes, when it's raining, my master lets me come into the house, but my mistress usually finds some excuse to throw me out again. It's a `dog's life'.
I hope you are working hard. You don't get a second chance with your education. And don't get into trouble you don't want to in-cur any punishments!
Your faithful friend
I was very unhappy at school at this time, and as you can imagine, such letters did lime to comfort or cajole me. It might give you a fuller picture of my parents' characters to know that the `here' and `there' referred to in Bounder's letter were in fact barely a mile apart. The notion that it could rain in one place and not the other certainly betrays a deep delusion on the part of my parents, who never otherwise hinted that they were anything but convinced of their decision to send me to a boarding school within walking distance of their house. Lest you think that I would have preferred a more far-flung institution, and that they kept me close by them for the sake of affection, let me tell you that I saw no more of my parents than the other girls did of theirs; and further, that I detested every day that I spent in that hellish place and begged to be sent elsewhere.
My predicament was, I now see, the result of my parents' own insecurities. Aspiring to a social position to which they had not been born, they believed it correct to expel their children from the family home and live amongst its empty, echoing bedrooms in miserable solitude. Being also, however, thoroughly provincial in nature, they believed it impossible that any school could be better than those found locally; and that the convenience with which they could visit us and attend school functions, not to mention savings in telephone calls and travel expenses, outweighed both the greater convenience and enormous financial benefit of having us at home.
My brothers were scarcely any better off, and indeed once the tide of my own injury had drawn back and the years neutered its memory somewhat, I was able to feel more aggrieved on their behalf than on my own. Like me, they were sent `away'. The elder thought himself happy enough within those high and privileged walls; but when finally he returned it became clear that he had left something vital and precious behind. It was probably for his own good that he himself never seemed to notice the loss; and how could he? For it was as if, while maintaining his outward appearance, everything in him had been minced into an undifferentiated mass and then reformed in a blander, more homogenous shape.
Not fitted to run with the elite, the younger was doomed in one way or another to become its prey. The accident occurred on the school playing fields, which my brother was crossing on his way back from his violin lesson. These lessons were a torment to my brother, who, unbeknownst to his teachers or fellow pupils, suffered from deafness in one ear. It is difficult to comprehend how this disability could have gone unnoticed; and perhaps in a more confident pupil it wouldn't have. My brother, however, scion of the brutal bourgeoisie, carrying the weight of my parents' hopes on his small shoulders, was an accomplice in the matter of his own oppression. He struggled to keep up in the classroom, learned with admirable skill to participate in conversations half of which he did not hear, sawed weekly at his violin, and never once considered that he might be happier were he to free himself from this intolerable burden. Labouring under it, then, as he crossed the grass, he did not notice a javelin competition being held at the other end of the playing field. Witnesses claimed that they shouted at him to duck as the pole came hurtling through the air towards him; and there is no reason, I suppose, not to believe them, when you consider that at least three of them required `counselling' after the event, which suggests at least that they were, as individuals, less callous than the forms their community took. My brother's deafness, as you will have guessed, made any warning to little avail. The deadly instrument felled him where he stood, impaling his small body on the grass like a bird struck by an arrow. He was thirteen years old, a year younger than me.
Many things came to pass as a result of this dreadful event. I will not go into them now. Of all the questions that were asked, however, of all the enquiries painfully made amidst expressions of regret and grief, one was never ventured: to wit, briefly, what arcane and pointless practice was this that deprived my brother of his life? That my parents never asked it was, to me, a measure of the unforgivable awe with which they still regarded the institution that had been so careless with their son. They didn't dare; as if by questioning the sport they would have betrayed their inferiority, the public discovery of which they feared more than all the private sorrow in the world. It has haunted me through the years, even now that my brother is but a shadow, a ghost that flits, unrestful, about my thoughts.
To return to my clear-out, I disposed of Bounder's correspondence with mingled grief and venom. A similarly sized bundle of letters from my mother with whose contents, which bored me even at the time, I shall not now detain you followed it; and so on, until all the messy spoils of the past, accumulated over such stretches of time, won in conflicts both arduous and joyful; the whole long, tiring campaign of my existence was parcelled up into three large bags and put downstairs for the proper authorities to dispose of.
Meet the Author
Rachel Cusk's debut, Saving Agnes, won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel in 1993. She lives in Oxford.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Pitch perfect. Extremely funny - providing both immediate laugh out loud humour, and humour which sneaks up on you as you think back over events in the novel and realize just how wild the events described were. It is also, beneath the dark humour, poignant and moving. I especially liked the ending.
To me, this novel represents a 21st-century-British novel in the Bristish tradistion of fine writing, subtle humor, and intriguing exploration of character in relationships. Rachel Cusk writes well. Her work would not suit the reader who wants a "quick fix" of adventure or romance or comedy; rather, this novel is one to be enjoyed at leisure and kept for a second, third, or even fourth reading. I laughed aloud at some of the predicaments Stella put herself in. The humor comes as much from Stella's self-conscious reflections as from situations. Cusk understands and presents characters well, especially the main character, Stella, and her "charge," Martin. The ending perfectly suits Cusk's characters and their development throughout the story.
Much like the heroine, stella, I got more than I bargained for in this unexpectedly enjoyable book. Granted, the writing style is complicated, but honestly, it's worth untangling the sentences. The naming of the book is especially appropriate, because the story is a sort of reflection on country life---namely,that there can be enough complexities and suspense within the narrow boundaries and behind the placid exterior of the country. Cusk grips the audience with small problems, which somehow seems calamitous enough to keep one turning the pages. The characters are, for the most part, believable ( though Stella herself sometimes strains the borders of credence), and Stella's observations shrewd. My only objection is that Cusk has strewn her country side with too many misshapen and oddball characters.
I loved this book! First of all it is extremely well written. Yes at times I had to reread some sentences to understand what she was saying but that is my problem not the fault of the author. She is extremely witty and funny. I actually sympathised with Stella. My book club panned the book but I loved it and wish I had another group to discuss it with because I didn't quite get the ending. I heard her other book Saving Agnes is no good however.
This was quite possibly one of the worst books I have ever read. Not that you have to like the characters in all books but Stella was too much - weak, whinning, etc. The literary style was cumbersome and overblown as if the author was trying too hard to make a dramatice statement. I couldn't care less what happended to the characters. If you have to try this book only read it in bed if you are having trouble getting to sleep.
It was interesting to watch the relationship between Stella and Martin develop. . .Martin seemed the more mature of the two. There are many hints at the personalities and relationships of the other characters, but none is fully developed. The ending is a disappointment; almost as though Ms. Cusk got tired of writing, or is she paving the way for a sequel?
I was very touched by this book and felt sorry when it's ended. Rachel Cusk writes in such a beutiful way specially when she discribes complex emotions of the main character. I'm looking forward for Ms. Cusk next book.
I have two gripes about this book. The first is the author's writing style. There are too many run-on sentences and sentence splices for my taste. Rereading sentences a few times to understand the author's thought is too much labor for a fiction book. Secondly, I have a difficult time relating to the main character. I think Stella could use some assertion counseling. The more I read the less I like her, which makes for difficult reading.