2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, London, Publisher, Rachel Cusk, Setting, Vintage

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

Transit — UK edition

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 272 pages; 2016.

Let me get one thing out of the way: when Rachel Cusk’s Transit was named on the 2017 Giller Prize shortlist my heart sank. That’s because I’d read her previous novel, Outline, when it was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015, and I didn’t much like it. Knowing that this was a follow-up, I expected I probably wouldn’t like this much either. I was right.

A new life in London

Transit picks up where Outline leaves off — though, unusually, you don’t need to have read the first novel to understand the second.

The narrator, Faye, is a writer with two young sons. Newly divorced, she returns to London to start her life afresh. She purchases an ex-council flat in need of serious renovation and finds that her neighbours aren’t particularly pleasant, but doesn’t let this bother her.

There’s no real plot. The narrative revolves around a series of interludes or interactions that the narrator makes with other people — a varied cast including an ex-boyfriend, a builder, one of her students, an unmarried friend and her hairdresser — as she goes about her day-to-day life as a creative writing tutor. This lends Transit more the feel of a collection of short stories, rather than a novel.

Transit — Canadian cover
Cover of the Canadian edition

Unusual structure

This unusual structure does achieve one thing: it slowly builds up a picture of Faye, a passive character who doesn’t shy away from casting judgement on other people. She’s often full of cod philosophy and is (wearily) opinionated, but she’s not particularly endearing.

For instance, during the course of the novel, her children are staying with their father while the builders work on her apartment, but every time they call her she seems cross that they’ve interrupted her day. Even when they call in tears, she doesn’t seem to offer much by way of maternal consolation.

The fragmentary nature of the story is not helped by the aloof tone of voice that is adopted throughout. While the writing is eloquent and insightful, dotted with wisdom and a pseudo intellectualism, the dialogue often feels contrived and not particularly authentic. Nothing ever seems to properly gel.

Despite this, I did enjoy specific chapters (the one set in the hairdressing salon was strangely engaging), but overall I found Transit to be a chore to read and I came away from the entire book feeling mostly ambivalent about it. I think it is fair to say that Rachel Cusk is simply not a writer for me, but you may find otherwise.

This is my 3rd book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

28 thoughts on “‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk”

    1. You either like this kind of style or you don’t. She’s clearly a brilliant writer, but I find that having stories filtered through a passive narrator doesn’t make them very engaging.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I actually rather like Rachel Cusk, but I know she is a bit of a marmite writer. You are right: her main characters is oddly passive and never endearing, but they are like mirrors reflecting the world around them, or anthropologists. In a way, it seems to me that she is implying we are made up of our daily interactions – and her unmotherly interactions with her children are as much part of her as the conversations with neighbours and friends. It is true that the protagonist seems oddly aloof, not overly interfering with the people around her, but I wonder if that is because of the divorce she is going through. I’m finding it hard to interact with real people (and prefer the online ones, almost) for that reason.


    1. Interesting points. I did wonder whether she was strangely disengaged from her children because she had other things going on, but it came across as cruel and self-obsessed. I can understand the appeal of Cusk as a writer, but it’s not a style/approach I like very much.


    1. No idea. I couldn’t figure it out last time either. I suspect it’s because she’s doing something different by subverting the usual conventions of the novel, but this type of structure/narrator/passivity doesn’t work for me


  2. The controversy for many, fond of Cusk or not, is that only in Canada is an author who happens to be born here eligible for awards, even if they left as a child, grew up and are long settled and working elsewhere. This prize should be for Canadians or landed immigrants living and working in Canada. The corollary is the Canadian artists who leave and live and work long term outside the country but still apply for and receive Canada Council Grants.

    Rant over (and I do not understand the appeal of Cusk either, by the way).


    1. We had that in Australia too when Evie Wyld, a writer based in the UK (and to my knowledge never resident in Australia), won the Miles Franklin a few years back. It seemed to defeat one of the purposes of the prize: to champion Australian fiction and Australian writers in an industry often subsumed by the wider world of US and UK lit.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have both Transit and Outline sitting around on TBR piles somewhere. Opinions seem so varied on both of them that one day I’m filled with enthusiasm to read them, the next I don’t think I’ll bother! I will make the effort one day though …


  4. I liked Outline, despite really struggling with Cusk’s earlier novels Arlington Park and In the Fold, so I might have to try Transit. I’m not sure what it was about Outline that made it work for me when the others didn’t, though – perhaps the writing just felt more fluid and less self-conscious.


  5. Creative writing courses have a lot to answer for, even if the do connect worthy authors with a liveable income. First they practiced all their theory on us, all that irony and truthiness, now we have to endure them as characters in their own works. Tell me the protagonist is not writing a novel about a creative writing lecturer!


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