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Strong or weak, they're ties that bind

The Lucky Ones; Rachel Cusk; Fourth Estate: 228 pp., $24.95

March 01, 2004|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

The Lucky Ones

Rachel Cusk

Fourth Estate: 228 pp., $24.95

*

The idea that a special bond exists between mother and child is not exactly what you'd call a fresh, let alone original, insight. In fact, it's probably one of the oldest truisms still extant. But in her latest work of fiction, British writer Rachel Cusk explores this familiar terrain with a subtlety and intensity that lay bare its unsuspected heights and hidden depths.

"The Lucky Ones" consists of five stories, which at first glance seem self-contained and self-sufficient. But, as the reader soon discovers, the characters in all five stories not only inhabit the same world; they also have unexpected links with one another. Thus, although Cusk focuses on the private, subjective domain of individual feeling and consciousness, we also get a sense of the wider society in which these subjectivities operate.

The first story, "Confinement," takes us inside a prison, where a young, heavily pregnant woman is struggling to rise from her cot to get to the toilet. Kirsty's outward situation is bleak: She's been convicted of a crime she didn't commit, and now the lawyer who's been handling her case, a dedicated man who believes in her innocence, is too ill to continue and has handed her case over to a callow young woman who couldn't care less. But inwardly, with her body full of this unborn other presence, Kirsty feels strangely sheltered, as if she -- and her baby -- are living in a realm apart.

Coming in the wake of this gritty portrait of a woman in extremis, the next story seems, and is doubtless meant to seem, a picture postcard of life in the superficial lane. "The Way You Do It" takes place at an Alpine ski resort, where six yuppies have come for a getaway. One of them is Jane, the uncaring junior lawyer of the previous story, who is no more sympathetic a character here than she was there. The action (mainly skiing and dialogue) is presented from the perspective of Martin, who is here for a brief reprieve from his wife and newly born daughter. He's uneasy at the prospect of so much change in his life, and listening to the complaints of his married friend Christian, whose wife, Lucy, neglects him in favor of the children, is hardly reassuring. Yet the prospect of unattached freedom, embodied in the person of Jane's attractive friend Josephine, is not all that tempting either.

"I am more and more drawn to the contemplation of things that happened a long time ago, things which, like certain paintings, seem to gain in clarity the further away from them I stand. When I try to locate the source of this magnetism it is always the house that I see." This ruminative voice that addresses us in the third story, "The Sacrifices," belongs to Lucy's twin sister, who is revisiting the old house where they both grew up. Unlike Lucy, who was close to their mother, the narrator has always felt a sense of having been expelled from a childhood she never fully inhabited in the first place.

The setting of the two final stories is a tiny, sedulously preserved English village that provides its well-off inhabitants with a sense (perhaps misleading) of being connected to a simpler, more wholesome past: "Ravenley had no pub or shop, no car park or playground, not even a telephone box. Superficially, it had not changed in a hundred years. The world beyond it sustained this appearance in the way that a life-support machine sustains the sleep of a dead patient. It was a costly process that had no purpose beyond the consolation of certain feelings. On the other side of the hill different standards obtained. Electricity pylons marched across grey, cluttered fields. Housing developments rose bloodily from the earth."

Reigning over her immaculately run home in this anomalous little oasis is a forceful, controlling woman who happens to be the mother of Josephine, whom we've already met on the ski trip. The fourth story, "Mrs. Daley's Daughter," delves into Mrs. Daley's complicated psyche, unearthing the shadowy motives underlying her resentment of Josephine. Here, as in the previous stories, Cusk illuminates her characters' interior worlds with precision, sensitivity and a command of language fully equal to the task of turning inchoate emotions into memorable images and conceptions:

"The truth was that she herself couldn't remember exactly what had happened; things came to her down the years not in clear images but in wafts of familiar emotion. These wafts could be more potent than the events themselves, for they hinted at the tragically solitary nature of human feeling: details fell away; other people dissolved and vanished ... and Mrs. Daley was left alone with the resentments of thirty years before, still as fresh as the day upon which she had felt them."

In the deeply affecting final story, "Matters of Life and Death," we meet another resident of Ravenley. Vanessa Healey knows her own mind -- or thinks she does -- and what she knows is that she doesn't want to be alone. She feels lucky to be living the life of a traditional wife and mother. She is utterly devoted to her two small children, and whatever minor dissatisfactions she may have with her husband, Colin, a documentary filmmaker, she prudently keeps to herself. But when circumstances change, Vanessa's carefully constructed system comes under heavy strain that threatens to cause its collapse.

Cusk is a writer of great psychological acuity, and her capacity for imagining her way into her characters' minds is matched by her skill as a stylist. Artfully conceived and strongly executed, "The Lucky Ones" is a powerful and original work.

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