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Transit
     

Transit

by Rachel Cusk
 

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The stunning second novel of a trilogy that began with Outline, one of The New York Times Book Review’s ten best books of 2015

In the wake of her family’s collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of this upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic,

Overview

The stunning second novel of a trilogy that began with Outline, one of The New York Times Book Review’s ten best books of 2015

In the wake of her family’s collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of this upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic, and practical—as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children. In the city, she is made to confront aspects of living that she has, until now, avoided, and to consider questions of vulnerability and power, death and renewal, in what becomes her struggle to reattach herself to, and believe in, life.

Filtered through the impersonal gaze of its keenly intelligent protagonist, Transit sees Rachel Cusk delve deeper into the themes first raised in her critically acclaimed novel Outline and offers up a penetrating and moving reflection on childhood and fate, the value of suffering, the moral problems of personal responsibility, and the mystery of change.

In this second book of a precise, short, yet epic cycle, Cusk describes the most elemental experiences, the liminal qualities of life. She captures with unsettling restraint and honesty the longing to both inhabit and flee one’s life, and the wrenching ambivalence animating our desire to feel real.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

Time invested in Rachel Cusk's work is never ill spent. There is so much to luxuriate in. Her sentences are like artfully laid little paths in a beautiful bit of woods. In Transit, she allows an astrologer's email to lead the reader in. "She could sense — the email continued — that I had lost my way in life, that I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come; she felt a strong personal connection between us, and while she couldn't explain the feeling, she knew too that some things defy explanation."

Cusk is always playing at something, and here it seems to be the way an ordinary reader is invited to trust a novelist, usually in ways we are scarcely aware of in the moment. The world is big and confusing, and we find ourselves wanting guidance. Some people like to find it in churches; others like to find it in fiction. But Cusk is one of those novelists — and they abound right now, from Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti — who are looking to trouble that relationship. This isn't a matter of that well-known tool of the novelist, the "unreliable narrator." In both Outline, her previous novel, and Transit, which is technically a sequel, Cusk is trying, subtly but unmistakably, to disrupt the comforts of the novel.

In Outline, Cusk let readers know not to expect a tightly woven exercise in storytelling. We gather that our unnamed narrator is living in the aftermath of a divorce. Aimless, she ends up in Athens and somehow becomes the sounding board for a number of stories from other people about the dissolution of their own relationships. Things do happen to our narrator, even things that an ordinary plot- junkie novelist would consider exciting: she goes out on a boat with a strange man, for example. But even as these things happen, she is disconnected from the expectations others might have if they heard her story. She tells us so explicitly:

It struck me that some people might think I was stupid, to go out alone on a boat with a man I didn't know. But what other people thought was no longer of any help to me. Those thoughts only existed within certain structures, and I had definitively left those structures.
Transit proceeds along similar lines, with even less concern for plot than its predecessor: instead of hearing people's confessions about their feuds with ex-wives and parents, the narrator hears a lot of stories from others about being lost. The narrator, too, is of course lost; she's living in a new house with complaining neighbors underfoot, and builders are ripping it up for a remodel. She is, like everyone she meets, in transit from one psychological place to another — the connection between the novel and the subject of its title is just that literal. In a particularly meta moment, our narrator — who is a writer — goes to a literary festival. There she listens to two men give a lecture about the costs of autobiographical writing.
And the blabbing, the telling, was the messiest thing of all: getting control of the language was getting control of anger and shame and it was hard, hard to turn it around, to take the mess of experience and make something coherent out of it.
Does all this blabbing sound a bit tedious? I fear that it does; I fear that this sort of book has nothing to say to vast swaths of humanity. There are, of course, people who spend a lot of time reading book criticism. Those people recognize some elements of what Cusk is doing as something called "autofiction." She has fellow travelers in that: Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Teju Cole, Tao Lin. You can overstate those writers' commonalities, but some are discernible: Deliberately artless, often unapologetically boring, collapsing the distance between a narrator and an author, these books are said to seek to import more of what feels like "reality" into fiction. These writers want to push the limits of the novel's possibility. Life is boring, the notion goes. Perhaps fiction should have some element of that aridity in it, too.

It's not hard to see the intellectual allure of these ideas. But sometimes, as I read Transit, I had questions about whether or not any of this was really improving fiction in the way that the intellectual justification seems to imply. One does not get the impression, for example, that what Cusk is actually importing into the novel is unadulterated experience. What she is giving it is a lulling drift that almost no one ever feels in the ordinary course of a day, graceful passages that don't really match up to what Joan Didion once called, in her own essay on the inconsistencies of storytelling, "the phantasmagoria of everyday experience."

The offer made by that astrologer, after all, is not so different than the one a writer like Cusk offers her reader. Though mostly a vessel for other people's stories in Outline and Transit, there is a certain elegance to the existence this narrator has. She does not seem to fear anything. She does not seem to want anything. And above all, she never seems uncertain about who she is or what she's doing. Perhaps Cusk herself really feels that way. Perhaps she is a model of calm receptiveness. But in her own way she's making the same fantastical promises that women with crystal balls make. Live through disaster, her books seem to say. Don't worry, we'll make it beautiful together.

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, and The Awl.

Reviewer: Michelle Dean

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…transfixing…[Faye] was the narrator of Ms. Cusk's previous novel, Outline (2015). These two short books are part of a projected trilogy, and together they're already a serious achievement: dense, aphoristic, philosophically acute novels that read like Iris Murdoch thrice distilled…[Cusk's] writing offers the iron-rich pleasures of voice instead of style. Each sentence is drilled down, as with an auger…Transit is fat with substance, as August Wilson once said he wanted his plays to be. There's a lot of humor in its talk.
The New York Times Book Review - Monica Ali
[Transit] is the second novel of a trilogy…in which Rachel Cusk's project appears to be nothing less than the reinvention of the form itself…Cusk has torn up the rule book, and in the process created a work of stunning beauty, deep insight and great originality…a meditation on the nature of self, freedom, narrative and reality. Best of all, she has given us all this in a novel that is compulsively readable…Cusk can…be funny and has a fine ear for dialogue…While her prose style is economical, she has a flair for imagery, sometimes bordering on the Dickensian…Transit is a slender novel that contains multitudes. It is a work of great ambition, beautifully executed, a worthy successor to the brilliant Outline, and a harbinger of great hope for the third and final installment—soon may it arrive.
Publishers Weekly
★ 10/24/2016
Cusk’s outstanding latest, the second in a trilogy, works as both a companion piece to the superb Outline and as an independent narrative, following Faye, a writer and teacher, who moves to London with her two young sons after a divorce. As in Outline, Faye’s arc is less about plotted action and is more a series of vignettes, focused this time on long conversations about the ways we journey through life. During these chats, her hairdresser reveals his confrontation with fear and being unwanted one New Year’s Eve, and an author, while speaking on a panel with Faye at a literary festival, talks about the fame he has received by revealing personal stories. A construction worker soundproofing her floors talks with Faye about architecture and broken families, and a potential student discusses her obsession with an obscure painter, and how her love for him sprung from the ashes of a failed attempted affair. As always, Cusk’s ear for language and dialogue is sharp; her characters speak about universal ideas, such as anxiety and lust. This marvelous novel continues the author’s vivid exploration of the human condition. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

“A work of stunning beauty, deep insight, and great originality . . . Transit is a slender novel that contains multitudes. It is a work of great ambition, beautifully executed, a worthy successor of the brilliant Outline.” —Monica Ali, The New York Times Book Review

“Transfixing . . . A serious achievement . . . [Cusk's] writing offers the iron-rich pleasures of voice instead of style. Each sentence is drilled down, as with an auger . . . This writer never has to recover her aplomb because she never loses it.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A reading journey you wish didn't have to end . . . Cusk gives us engrossing, probing conversations . . . Her prose is exquisitely precise . . . With its resonant comparisons between life and art (including literature) and its enjoyably varied, more tightly structured series of vignettes, Transit fills in the ‘sketched-out form’ Cusk introduced in Outline. Her narrator's ongoing odyssey toward finding her bearings in her new life is a journey worth following.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR

“Alienating yet intimate, dreamlike yet grounded, slim yet substantial, delicate but fierce, Cusk’s writing feels, exhilaratingly, unlike any other fiction being written these days.” —Emily Donaldson, The Toronto Star

“Rachel Cusk is returning fiction to its roots in storytelling . . . Cusk's goal . . . [is] the establishment of a compelling, dreamlike language and worldview that are utterly her own.” —Jamie Fisher, The Washington Post

“How much should we say, this novel asks, and when should we say it? To whom? In Cusk’s case, a few words are enough to keep readers engrossed, waiting for more.” —Jackie Thomas Kennedy, Minneapolis StarTribune

“Hypnotizing.” —Laird Hunt, Los Angeles Times

“Arresting . . . Condensed, powerful . . . Cusk's technique is reminiscent of filmmaker Richard Linklater, who delights in showing how ordinary people talk to each other as they analyze their shared lives. Talk can have all the drama, suspense, surprise, and plot development of an action scene, but it takes skill to keep the tension high enough to make a scene in which nothing much happens, except for friends trying to manage their children long enough to have a civilized dinner, hit with the force of a car crash.” —Jenny Shank, The Dallas Morning News

“Cusk writes in a cut-glass style that is elegant, austere, and disciplined . . . Yet this cool, balanced style is used to describe the hottest of feelings and the most destabilizing of experiences: moments of transit — getting divorced, renovating a house — the movement from one life to another.” —Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe

Cusk’s story-invention powers are so rich that the format feels as fresh the second time around as it did the first. It also hints at Cusk’s extraordinarily precise orchestration of narrative effects.” —Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

In Transit, the second novel in the series, Cusk hones her new approach, which might be called stream of conversation-ness. She structures her minimalist plot as a jeweler affixes glittering gems in a necklace . . . The experience of reading Transit re-creates, with delicious adult sophistication, that wonderful sensation of being a child, staving off bedtime by requesting tale after tale . . . Cusk at her most brilliant, feminist best.” —Miranda Purves, Elle

“In her effort to expose the illusions of both fiction and life, [Rachel Cusk] may have discovered the most genuine way to write a novel today.” —Ruth Franklin, The Atlantic

“Outstanding . . . As always, Cusk’s ear for language and dialogue is sharp; her characters speak about universal ideas, such as anxiety and lust. This marvelous novel continues the author’s vivid exploration of the human condition.” —Publishers Weekly, boxed, starred review

“Brave and uncompromising in its literary ambition, Transit is a work of cut-glass brilliance that quietly insists on the reader's thoughtful attention. One beautifully crafted sentence follows another.” —Rebecca Abrams, The Financial Times

“Cusk is now working on a level that makes it very surprising that she has not yet won a major literary prize. Her technical originality is equaled by the compelling nature of her subject matter, and Transit is a very fine novel indeed.” —Helen Dunmore, The Observer

“[Transit] is tremendous from its opening sentence . . . Cusk is always an exciting writer: striking and challenging, with a distinctive cool prose voice, and behind that coolness something untamed and full of raw force, even rash . . . she has developed a radically new novel form that works triumphantly . . . Transitsteers with stylishness and grace between the low-lying truths and the significant dramas we compose for ourselves out of the accidents which befall us. Offering no hostages to convention, it’s somehow page-turningly enthralling and charged with the power to move. Cusk has tuned in to our curiosity about the lives of others, and composed out of that curiosity something capacious and generous.” —Tessa Hadley, The Guardian

Transit is an extraordinary piece of writing—stunningly bold, original, and humane.” —Joanna Kavenna, The Daily Telegraph

Cusk's perspective on the human condition provokes and bewitches.” —Sarah Begley, Time

“Cusk is one of the most lucid, powerful novelists working today, and Transit reflects her ability to make a profound impact with deceptively simple and always elegant prose.” —Nylon

“[Transit] is a delightfully fun read. Cusk knows how to write a great novel, and this one satisfies on many levels . . . she is producing work that is beautifully refined.” —Melissa Katsoulis, The Times (UK)

“Beneath [Transit's] placid surface, themes of displacement and the desire for transformation and authenticity rumble like small, violent earthquakes. It’s also gruesomely funny: the final part, which describes a particularly poncey dinner party, is like something from a horror story. Strange, frightening and brilliant.” —Clare Allfree, The Daily Mail

Brilliantly written and structured, which is nothing new from this superlatively gifted writer.” —Kirkus Reviews

“With the sparest prose, Cusk has again created an expertly crafted portrait in this distinctive novel about the fear and hope that accompany change, and one woman’s quest to conquer them. A masterful second installment to a promising trilogy.” —Cortney Ophoff, Booklist (starred review)

Library Journal
09/01/2016
The second book in a projected trilogy (after Outline), this novel subtly explores the multiple definitions of "transit," as its characters are all in transition: moving their physical location, ending or beginning relationships, transforming their homes, or coming to terms with new phases of life. The only through-line that resembles a plot involves the (mostly) unnamed narrator, who has ended her marriage and returned to London after living away for 15 years. She buys a dilapidated flat and starts a major renovation project, over the objections of her extremely hostile neighbors. Otherwise, most of the chapters consist of the stories imparted to the narrator, a writer, by the various people she encounters, including an old flame, her hairdresser, her building contractors, writing students, and dinner party guests. VERDICT The narrator's apparent emotional distance makes her a sounding board for the other characters, who open up and share their lives and struggles. In a way, Cusk is unmasking one way that writers take life and turn it into fiction, and this experiment with the form and definition of the novel make this a recommended purchase where creative writing and contemporary literature collections are strong. [See Prepub Alert, 7/18/16.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Kirkus Reviews
2016-10-05
In the second installment of a planned trilogy, Cusk builds on the strengths of Outline (2015) and deepens them by giving her narrator a more human presence.Once again, Cusk’s novel progresses through stories shared with the narrator by various people in her life; their arias of disconnection, fear, and loss swell toward a sorrowful climax that nonetheless contains both humor and hope. But this time, Faye (we actually learn her name, though it’s only used once) is more inclined to respond with musings of her own, more willing to share her history and—at least elliptically—her emotions. Following a divorce, she's moved to London with her two sons, though the crummy state of the council flat she bought necessitates repairs that send the boys to live with their neglectful father for a bit. They make reproachful phone calls while she's appearing at a book festival and visiting a cousin in the countryside, reinforcing her feelings of powerlessness and drift. It’s no accident that the book opens with an email from an astrologer; Faye sardonically notes that it's a computer-generated algorithm, but she pays nonetheless to get a reading about the “major transit…due to occur shortly in [her] sky.” She’s not the only one to feel in the grip of malevolent destiny. From the real estate agent who bemoans his clients’ blindness to “the decree of fate” to the cousin who proclaims that “fate…is only truth in its natural state,” Cusk’s characters disclaim personal responsibility even as they upend their lives. Only Faye seems willing to face up to the consequences of her actions, which is perhaps why she is offered, however tentatively, a chance for new love. Brilliantly written and structured, which is nothing new from this superlatively gifted writer, but with a chastened empathy for human weakness that was absent from her last two novels. Its return is most welcome.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374278625
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
01/17/2017
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
18,907
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Transit


By Rachel Cusk

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Rachel Cusk
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71457-4


CHAPTER 1

An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.

She could sense – the email continued – that I had lost my way in life, that I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come; she felt a strong personal connection between us, and while she couldn't explain the feeling, she knew too that some things ought to defy explanation. She understood that many people closed their minds to the meaning of the sky above their heads, but she firmly believed I was not one of those people. I did not have the blind belief in reality that made others ask for concrete explanations. She knew that I had suffered sufficiently to begin asking certain questions, to which as yet I had received no reply. But the movements of the planets represented a zone of infinite reverberation to human destiny: perhaps it was simply that some people could not believe they were important enough to figure there. The sad fact, she said, is that in this era of science and unbelief we have lost the sense of our own significance. We have become cruel, to ourselves and others, because we believe that ultimately we have no value. What the planets offer, she said, is nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honour, how much kindness and responsibility and respect, would we bring to our dealings with one another if we believed that each and every one of us had a cosmic importance? She felt that I of all people could see the implications here for improvements in world peace and prosperity, not to mention the revolution an enhanced concept of fate could bring about in the personal side of things. She hoped I would forgive her for contacting me in this way and for speaking so openly. As she had already said, she felt a strong personal connection between us that had encouraged her to say what was in her heart.

It seemed possible that the same computer algorithms that had generated this email had also generated the astrologer herself: her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human. As a result her sympathy and concern were slightly sinister; yet for those same reasons they also seemed impartial. A friend of mine, depressed in the wake 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. There has been a great harvest, he said, of language and information from life, and it may have become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original, that there was more tenderness to be had from a machine than from one's fellow man. After all, the mechanised interface was the distillation not of one human but of many. Many astrologers had had to live, in other words, for this one example to have been created. What was soothing, he believed, was the very fact that this oceanic chorus was affixed in no one person, that it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere: he recognised that a lot of people found this idea maddening, but for him the erosion of individuality was also the erosion of the power to hurt.

It was this same friend – a writer – who had advised me, back in the spring, that if I was moving to London with limited funds, it was better to buy a bad house in a good street than a good house somewhere bad. Only the very lucky and the very unlucky, he said, get an unmixed fate: the rest of us have to choose. The estate agent had been surprised that I adhered to this piece of wisdom, if wisdom it was. In his experience, he said, creative people valued the advantages of light and space over those of location. They tended to look for the potential in things, where most people sought the safety of conformity, of what had already been realised to the maximum, properties whose allure was merely the sum of exhausted possibilities, to which nothing further could be added. The irony, he said, was that such people, while afraid of being original, were also obsessed with originality. His clients went into ecstasies over the merest hint of a period feature: well, move out of the centre a little and you could have those in abundance for a fraction of the cost. It was a mystery to him, he said, why people continued to buy in over-inflated parts of the city when there were bargains to be had in up-and-coming areas. He supposed at the heart of it was their lack of imagination. Currently we were at the top of the market, he said: this situation, far from discouraging buyers, seemed actually to inflame them. He was witnessing scenes of outright pandemonium on a daily basis, his office stampeded with people elbowing one another aside to pay too much for too little as though their lives depended on it. He had conducted viewings where fights had broken out, presided over bidding wars of unprecedented aggression, had even been offered bribes for preferential treatment; all, he said, for properties that, looked at in the cold light of day, were unexceptional. What was striking was the genuine desperation of these people, once they were in the throes of desire: they would phone him hourly for updates, or call in at the office for no reason; they begged, and sometimes even wept; they were angry one minute and penitent the next, often regaling him with long confessions concerning their personal circumstances. He would have pitied them, were it not for the fact that they invariably erased the drama from their minds the instant it was over and the purchase completed, shedding not only the memory of their own conduct but also of the people who had had to put up with it. He had had clients who had shared the most gruesome intimacies with him one week and then walked past him in the street the next without the slightest sign of recognition; he had seen couples who had sunk to the depths before his eyes, now going obliviously about their business in the neighbourhood. Only in the very completeness of their oblivion did he sometimes detect a hint of shame. In the early days of his career he had found such incidents upsetting, but luckily experience had taught him not to take it to heart. He understood that for them he was a figure conjured out of the red mist of their desire, an object, so to speak, of transference. Yet the desire itself continued to bewilder him. Sometimes he concluded that people only want what it is not certain they can have; at other times it seemed to him more complex. Frequently, his clients would admit to feeling relief that their desire had been thwarted: the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn't got it. They could see now that it would have been completely wrong for them; they wanted to know what else he had on his books. For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people recognise the decree of fate.

We were sitting in his office while this conversation occurred. Outside, the traffic moved sluggishly along the grey, dirty London street. I said that the frenzy he had described, rather than arousing me to compete, extinguished any enthusiasm I might have had for house-hunting and made me want to walk immediately away. Besides, I didn't have the money to engage in bidding wars. I understood that in the market conditions he had described, I was therefore unlikely to find anywhere to live. But at the same time, I rebelled against the idea that creative people, as he had called them, should allow themselves to be marginalised by what he had politely described as their superior values. He had used, I believed, the word 'imagination': the worst possible thing for such a person was to quit the centre as an act of self-protection and take shelter in an aesthetic reality by which the outside world remained untransfigured. If I didn't want to compete, I wanted even less to make new rules about what constituted victory. I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn't attain it.

The estate agent seemed somewhat taken aback by these remarks. He had not meant to imply, he said, that I ought to be marginalised. He simply thought I would get more for my money, and get it more easily, in a less overheated neighbourhood. He could see I was in a vulnerable position. And such fatalism as mine was rare in the world he worked in. But if I was determined to run with the pack, well, he did have something he could show me. He had the details right in front of him: it had just come back on the market that morning, the previous sale having fallen through. It was a council-owned property: they were keen to find another buyer straight away, and the price reflected that fact. As I could see, he said, it was in pretty poor condition – in fact, it was virtually uninhabitable. Most of his clients, hungry as they were, wouldn't have touched it in a million years. If I would permit him to use the word 'imagination', it was beyond the scope of most people's; though admittedly it was in a very desirable location. But given my situation, he couldn't in all conscience offer me encouragement. It was a job for a developer or a builder, someone who could look at it impersonally; the problem was the margins were too small for that kind of person to be interested. He looked me in the eye for the first time. Obviously it's not a place, he said, where you could expect children to live.

Several weeks later, when the transaction was concluded, I happened to pass the estate agent in the street. He was walking along on his own, a sheaf of papers clutched to his chest and a set of keys jingling in his fingers. I was careful to acknowledge him, remembering what he had said, but he merely glanced at me blankly and looked away again. That was in early summer; it was now the beginning of autumn. It was the astrologer's remarks about cruelty that had reminded me of that incident, which at the time had seemed to prove that whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us. There was a link in the astrologer's email to the planetary reading she had made for me. I paid the money and read what it said.


Gerard was instantly recognisable: he was riding through the traffic on his bicycle in the sun and passed by without seeing me, his face lifted. He wore an exalted expression which reminded me of the element of drama in his persona and of the evening fifteen years earlier when he had sat naked on the windowsill of our top-floor flat with his legs dangling down into the darkness saying that he didn't believe I loved him. The only noticeable difference was his hair, which he'd allowed to grow into an arresting mane of wild black curls.

I saw him again a few days later: it was early in the morning and this time he was standing beside his bicycle in the street, holding the hand of a small girl in school uniform. I had once lived with Gerard for several months in the flat he had owned where, as far as I knew, he still remained. At the end of that period I had left him, without much ceremony or explanation, for someone else and had moved away from London. For a few years afterwards, he would sometimes call our house in the countryside, his voice sounding so faint and far away that it was as if he was calling from some place of actual exile. Then one day he sent me a long handwritten letter covering several pages, in which he appeared to be explaining to me why he had found my behaviour both incomprehensible and morally incorrect. It had arrived in the exhausting time just after my older son was born; I was unable to read it to the end, and had added to the list of my sins by not answering it.

After we had greeted one another, and expressed an astonishment that on my side was feigned since I had already seen him once without him seeing me, Gerard introduced the small girl as his daughter.

'Clara,' she said in a firm, high, quavering voice, when I asked her name.

Gerard asked how old mine were now, as though the bald fact of parenthood might be softened if I were implicated in it too. He said he had seen me interviewed somewhere – it was probably years ago now, to be honest – and the description of my house on the Sussex coast had made him quite envious. The South Downs were one of his favourite parts of the country. He was surprised, he said, to find me back here in the city.

'Clara and I walked the South Downs Way once,' he said. 'Didn't we, Clara?'

'Yes,' she said.

'I've often thought that's where we'd go if we ever left London,' Gerard said. 'Diane lets me read the estate-agent porn, so long as it stops there.'

'Diane's my mum,' Clara explained, with dignity.

The street where we were standing was one of the broad tree-lined avenues of handsome Victorian houses that seemed to act as the guarantors of the neighbourhood's respectability. Their well-pruned hedges and large, polished front windows, when I passed them, had always caused me groundless feelings of both security and absolute exclusion. The flat I had shared with Gerard had been nearby, on a street where the first faint downward cadences of tone could be heard as the neighbourhood began its transition towards the run-down, traffic-choked boroughs further east: the houses, though still handsome, bore the occasional imperfection; the hedges were a little more unruly. The flat had been a big, rambling network of rooms on the upper storeys of an Edwardian villa, whose striking views were expressive of the descent from the salubrious to the squalid, a dichotomy Gerard had seemed at the time either to be presiding over or imprisoned in. From the back was the Palladian vista westward, of well-kept lawns and lofty trees and discreet half-glimpses of other handsome houses. From the front was a bleak panorama of urban desolation of which, since the building stood on a rise, the flat had had a particularly unshielded view. Gerard had once pointed out a long, low structure in the distance and told me it was a women's prison: our view of it was so clear that at night the tiny orange dots that were the tips of the prisoners' cigarettes could be seen as they smoked on the walkway along their cells.

The playground noises coming from behind the high wall beside us were getting louder. Gerard put his hand on Clara's shoulder, and bent down to speak in a low voice into her ear. He was evidently delivering some kind of reprimand, and I found myself remembering his letter again and its cataloguing of my shortcomings. She was a tiny, fragile, pretty creature but her elfin face assumed an expression of superb martyrdom while he spoke that suggested she had inherited some of her father's melodramatic demeanour. She listened interestedly while he corrected her, her sagacious brown eyes staring unblinking into the distances of the road. Nodding very slightly in response to his final question, she turned and walked aloofly among the other children through the gates.

I asked Gerard how old she was.

'Eight,' he said. 'Going on eighteen.'

I was surprised by the discovery that Gerard had a child. In the time when I knew him he had been so far from resolving the difficulties of his own childhood that it was hard to believe he was now a father. The strangeness was accentuated by the fact that in every other respect he seemed unchanged: his sallow-skinned face with its soft, long-lashed, slightly childlike eyes was unaged; his left-hand trouser leg was still held back by a bicycle clip, as it always had been; the violin case strapped across his back had always been such a permanent feature of his appearance that I didn't think to ask what it was still doing there. When Clara had disappeared from view Gerard said:

'Someone told me you were moving back here. I didn't know whether to believe it or not.'

He asked if I'd bought somewhere and which street I was living in and I told him while he stood vigorously nodding his head.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Transit by Rachel Cusk. Copyright © 2016 Rachel Cusk. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rachel Cusk is the author of three memoirs—A Life’s Work, The Last Supper, and Aftermath—and several novels: Saving Agnes, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award; The Temporary; The Country Life, which won a SomersetMaugham Award; The Lucky Ones; In the Fold; Arlington Park; The Bradshaw Variations; and Outline. She was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. She lives in London.

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