The narrator of Outline is a woman whose name is mentioned but once in the novel, so that it doesn't really matter what her name is, there is a stealthy sense of anonymity about her.
Her destination is Athens where she will give a creative writing course in English. On the flight out from London, she meets an older Greek man who tells her the fascinating story of his life, his wives, his family, the vault in London where his parents rested before transfer for burial to Athens, the almost bizarre circumstances of their interment in Greece.
He tells his story quietly, you can almost sense his effort to keep his voice intimate so that the fellow passengers do not overhear him. There is a sense of old Greek money, as there is about some of the future characters we will meet. Aristotle Onassis is mentioned at some point, there is an air of almost accidental decadence, yet of trying to do the right thing too, in trying family circumstances.
Cusk handles this man's story with such vivid imaginative mastery and yet it is like as if she were merely reporting what she has heard. She will continue to call him her 'neighbour', referring back to their first meeting on the outbound plane.
In Athens, the woman teacher moves into a small apartment at the top of a house, left to her for her sojourn by a woman who is away. She speculates about the absent occupier from the look of the apartment, she meets more characters in restaurants and cafés who also tell their stories and voice their opinions about what they have experienced.
One of the first people the writing teacher meets in Athens is a voluble, red-haired Irishman called Ryan.He grew up in Tralee, before his family moved to Dublin. (You kind of wonder did Cusk meet such an Irishman in reality?)
In the creative writing class, her students almost without intending to reveal an awful lot through the simple exercise of telling their teacher what they observed on the way to class that morning.
Everything is kind of askew in the lives of quite a few of these characters, which include a fascinating Greek lesbian poet. They are almost infantile, despite all they have seemingly learned.Their stories flow in and out of each other, as though hypnotised by a strange stream of consciousness.
The teacher is herself a mother of three children whose marriage has broken down. She feels herself a mere 'outline' of a person, as the last character she hears from begins to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back . All these people have crowded her out somehow with their tensions, neuroses and idiosyncratic observations on their own existences.
A brilliant, perceptive novel, Outline was serialised in its entirety by the Paris Review, which is probably a lot cooler than making the Man Booker shortlist which it did not do.
Note: Also available in paperback from Faber & Faber is the 152-page memoir, Aftermath - On Marriage and Separation, Cusk's candid exploration of the end of her marriage in the winter of 2009. The book was first published in 2012.
The Last Supper - A Summer in Italy is also available in paperback from Faber. This 215-page travel book recalls an extended holiday in which Rachel Cusk, along with then husband and two young children, wend their way along 'the most famous art trail in the world. ' The author reflects on art, the transformative effects of travel, separation and the social background of the artists of the Renaissance. The work was first published in 2009.