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book review

Rachel CuskSiemon Scammell-Katz

In 2015, when Rachel Cusk's 11th book, Outline, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award, a few of this country's more territorial commentators were quick to sound the nationalist alarm bells.

Eleanor Catton had been the target of similar gripes two years prior, when The Luminaries won the G-G; both Cusk and Catton were born in Canada but relocated as children to the United States and New Zealand, respectively. Although most Canadian literary awards are open to Canadian citizens, regardless of residency, certain self-appointed gatekeepers seemed to believe that eligibility should not be a birthright, but somehow earned.

A piece in the Toronto Star lamented the "tragic" event of Catton's win, citing her inability, as an outsider, to "[help] us better understand ourselves as Canadians." Writing for The Walrus, Stephen Henighan framed the nominations as "the result of a culture where there are no longer clear boundaries," concluding that "open-minded people are afraid to make any distinctions at all for fear of appearing prejudiced." The need to claim and celebrate writers with even tenuously Canadian heritage, he suggested, was born from insecurity: "Mature countries," he wrote, "don't do this."

Claiming that Canada is immature because of the capaciousness of our literary borders is a bit baffling, especially considering that Henighan is one of this country's most active proponents of foreign work in translation. The crux of his argument, however, wasn't exactly a call for cultural isolationism, but rather that "the vantage point from which [Cusk and Catton] perceive the world is not Canadian." What, exactly, constitutes a Canadian vantage point was never really explained, although Henighan's proposal that such a thing is "instilled by childhood experiences" precludes any writer – Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Dionne Brand, etc. – who grew up somewhere else.

It's doubtful that Transit, Cusk's new novel, is a conscientious response to these ideas. Even so, its themes of transience and dislocation are contiguous with a broader conversation about the fluidity of identity resulting, in part, from an increasingly – and contentiously (see Brexit, Trump, etc.) – borderless planet.

Here, Outline's Faye is back from Greece and has, amid the collapse of her marriage, moved with her two sons to London. Having opted, on a limited income, "to buy a bad house in a good street," she discovers that her downstairs neighbours are a pair of foul-mouthed, ceiling-rattling misanthropes, and that, to make the house even vaguely inhabitable, she will need to rebuild it from scratch. As metaphors go, it's one of the novel's least subtle, but the writing throughout these opening scenes is so elegant and wise that Cusk, and Faye, rapidly earn our forgiveness: "A city was a decipherable interface, a sort of lexicon of human behaviour that did half the work of decoding the mystery of self, so that you could effectively communicate through a kind of shorthand."

Faye remains an emotional cypher, at least in terms of how much she divulges about herself. But Cusk echoes W.G. Sebald in her ingenious use of revelation via proxy, using other characters' disclosures to sketch a sort of lateral self-portrait. The novel's opening chapter, for example, centres around a spam e-mail from an online fortune teller, which the narrator recounts ironically, though not without obvious poignancy: "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." Faye, of course, ultimately pays for the full astrological reading.

The "transit" of the novel's title refers less to movement than it does to transition. This is a book about flux, one that acutely distills those interstitial moments and spaces in which perceptions – of oneself, of others, of the world – are upended and recast. As such, one of its themes is atemporality, embodied in everything from the manufactured nostalgia of fashion trends to a café situated at a gentrified junction, described as "a place of transit [that] gave an impression of age and character while being, in fact, both generic and new."

Yet Transit doesn't simply dwell in these places; it uses them to examine the possibilities that arise amid rootlessness and in the gaps between endings and new beginnings. This is not to say that readers should expect some feel-good work of self-actualization, and any aphorisms read almost like parodies: "Whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves," goes one maxim, "we are only the result of how others have treated us." These are dark times for Faye, and the disorder and claustrophobia of her domestic scenario is occasionally reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's harrowing The Days of Abandonment.

The novel ends with a disastrous dinner party derailed by stepchildren attempting to situate themselves in some elusive, fixed identity, and a couple retelling their adulterous beginnings from competing viewpoints. But amid it all Faye senses a shift: "I felt a change far beneath me […] like the plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces."

Ultimately, she seeks to transcend her loneliness and find a home in the world – something that should resonate with anyone, regardless of nationality, and a story we should all be able to recognize as our own.

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