#GLB2015: Outline by Rachel Cusk

Tuesday 3 November 2015
Each fall, I look forward to the Scotiabank Giller Light Bash. If you're not familiar with it, it's a wildly fun evening where bookish folks gather on Giller Prize night to celebrate Canadian literature while raising money for Frontier College. Read about some of my Giller Light highlights from 2011, 2012, and 2013. Somehow, I failed to write about Giller Light 2014. I blame the wine. 

This year, Giller Light has enlisted the help of bloggers to highlight the five titles that comprise the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. Yesterday, Karen of One More Page reviewed Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill. Karen is a tough act to follow, but I'm happy to be today's #GLB2015 blogger, reviewing Outline by Rachel Cusk. 

For eight years, I was a commuter, taking the bus from Hamilton to Aldershot, and the train from Aldershot to Oakville. Each day, without fail, I saw the same faces, each following their own routine to and from work. Many of these fellow commuters became familiar to me, though we would rarely say anything more than "Hello" or "Have a nice weekend," if that. I didn't know any of their names, and I knew nothing about their lives. I was an introvert curious about who they were and what they did, but I never collected their stories. 

The narrator in Rachel Cusk’s latest offering of fiction, Outline, is a collector of stories. We know little about her, not even her name, but when this innovative novel begins, we know she’s en route to Athens to teach a summer writing course. In a series of narratives, each centring on the life of someone Cusk’s narrator meets on her journey, we begin to piece together fragments of her life: She lives in London, her marriage has failed, she has children, but we’re not sure how many. The details of the narrator’s life are scant, but we know she possesses the talent of cultivating the stories of others. 

A writer and storyteller herself, Cusk’s narrator critiques the stories passed to her by strangers. On her flight to Athens, she meets a passenger with “the mannerisms of an Englishman but the heart of a Greek,” but she’s skeptical of the story of his life he shares: “This was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.” 

Outline is a surprising novel, full of complexity and layers, but it’s a joy to read, and I can say without hesitation that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. The Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury called it “compulsively readable and dazzlingly intelligent,” adding that it’s a “novel of breathtaking skill and originality.” It’s clear early in Outline that Cusk is a master of language, using stunning words like "lolling” and “turgid” with ease and without pretension. Her attention to detail is flawless, right down to the sound of an airline attendant’s stockings to the bones of a regal woman’s face. 

I can’t help but share one of my favourite passages in Outline, in which our narrator gathers a story not from a person, but a person’s things. Clelia owns the top-floor apartment where the narrator stays in Athens, and her ephemera share her story. 
“I wandered around the apartment, looking at things. I opened a few cupboards and drawers. Everything was highly orderly. There was no confusion or secrecy: things were in their correct places and complete. There was a drawer for pens and stationery, a drawer for computer equipment, a drawer for maps and guides, a filing cabinet with papers in neat dividers. There was a first-aid drawer and a drawer for sellotape and glue. There was a cupboard for cleaning materials and another for tools. The drawers in the antique oriental bureau in the sitting room were empty and smelled of dust. I kept looking for something else, a clue, something rotting or breeding, a layer of mystery or chaos or shame, but I didn’t find it.”

Outline is a powerful novel that I expected at first not to like. In its early chapters, the holes in the narrator’s story, most notably her name, felt like chasms, but eventually, I couldn’t help but embrace this mystery. 

Tomorrow, visit Padfoots Library for the next installment of the #GLB2015 Blog Tour. Christine will be reviewing Giller shortlisted title Martin John by Anakana Schofield.

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