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'Outline' by Rachel Cusk: Observing others

Rachel Cusk, author of "Outline" (FSG, January 2015).

Rachel Cusk, author of "Outline" (FSG, January 2015). Credit: Siemon Scamell-Katz

OUTLINE, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $26.

This odd, interesting and beautifully written book is composed of 10 conversations. Each is between the narrator, a recently divorced British writer, and someone she encounters in the course of a trip to Athens where she's teaching a summer writing course. The narrator herself is a mystery, seen only in outline, per the title, through these recounted conversations, which delineate her by way of her perceptions of other people. In fact, we first learn her name on page 212 of 250, when a call she's been awaiting from a mortgage broker finally comes in.

" 'Is that Faye?' Lydia asked.

"Yes, I said."

Well, thinks the reader, hello, Faye.

The first dialogue is with the person sitting next to her on the flight to Athens, "a small man in a pale linen suit, richly tanned, with a silver plume of hair." This "neighbour," as she refers to him, becomes a recurring character, taking her out during her stay for a couple of trips on his boat.

Also threading through the narrative is her second conversation partner, Ryan, another teacher at the program, a self-centered Irish writer. The third conversation is not an actual dialogue, but a detailed examination of the apartment of a woman named Clelia, where the narrator is staying, and the last one is with her successor in the loaner apartment, a woman who has been irrevocably altered by a violent crime.

One of the key chapters describes a workshop session where Faye has asked her students to tell about something they noticed on the way in that morning. The stories include discovering a lost handbag, visiting a husband who has redecorated his office in white, "so that everything not white -- including some of the people -- had to be removed," and a secondhand account of a skylight breaking over a dinner party. One woman is silent the whole time, making her "displeasure known by a series of increasingly indiscreet groans and sighs." She leaves without doing the exercise, saying only, "I'll tell you one thing, you're a lousy teacher."

Yet the exercise reflects entirely the principle of the book itself, that one is defined by what one notices and by the way that one describes it. The narrator's emotions about her divorce are evinced only by stories about other people's marriages and relationships. The melancholy and dignity of this approach are, by the end, quite profound.

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