Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014) and Transit (2017)

Readers meet a woman up in the air. Literally. She is flying to Athens, where she will teach a course in creative writing.

This is Outline.

Perhaps partly because she could instruct in the art of outlining, demonstrate for her students the art of constructing a framework on which to drape their inventions, their imaginings, their lies.

Partly because she is merely an outline of a person just now.

She is no longer a wife and she is no longer a mother, having either vacated that role or removed herself from active duty.

Her memories and thoughts, however, often circle back to these previous aspects of her identity, however, she is trying to see how she fits into her life now, without those familiar shapes to define her.

When she meets people, she is struck by certain aspects of their lives (their inventions, their imaginings, their lies) which seem to resonate with her own self; these meetings hold centre stage in the book, where normally a main character’s story would take root.

Whether or not she might choose to share that story, she is incapable of doing so now. She is only a shape and not a recognizable one either (not to her, anyway, and perhaps her transience – travelling and guest lecturing – makes her inherently fuzzy-around-the-edges to begin with).

Instead, Outline is something-other-than-a-novel and, as such, it requires a degree of participation which will best suit peculiarly attentive and introspective, ruminating and curious readers.

“And if there’s one thing I know it’s that writing comes out of tension, tension between what’s inside and what’s outside.”

And there is a tension in the work, as she struggles with the gap between two states. (A quiet tension, not the page-turning sort.)

The gap beween the person she was while married and mothering and the person she is now. The gap between a way of living in a moment or living outside of it. The gap between expectations and reality. The gap between ignorance/unawareness and understanding/compassion. The gap between luxury hotel rooms and ugly metal cots. The gap between children who stay and children who leave. The gap between leaving a marriage and being left behind.

These are really big ideas but infinitessimally small things hold a position of importance in the work too.

Moments, for instance, in which a balance appears to sway to one side, a fragment of time in which a decision to act could be made.

A flaw in the glass or a stain on fabric, for example. Such tiny details can possess a tremendous power, which might seem destructive initially but also can contain a reward, or a sense of progress. So a child holds a toy aloft, anticipating the moment of letting go but also the pleasure of having it returned, a person poised in a tree deliberates over jumping or falling, and a woman pursues confrontations in relationships to more quickly expose hidden qualities in her partner.

Echoes reverberate within and between the books and their gradual accumulation assembles something-like-a-self, which requires readers’ commitment to attention and exploration.

“Very often I have felt that my relationships have had no story, and the reason is because I have jumped ahead of myself, the way I used to turn the pages of a book to find out what happens in the final chapter. I want to know everything straight away. I want to know the content without living through the time span.”

Outline focuses on the content rather than the time span, whereas Transit offers a hint of something more structured.

Here, Faye moves to London, although even here her position remains unformed and ill-defined as the house is immediately and thoroughly under renovation.

Yes, her name is Faye, Readers learn this, via a quick conversation regarding finances, while she is in Athens in Outline. She might as well be nameless in every other respect.

Only a person who seems to belong to an earlier phase of her life, peripherally too, addresses her by name. Ths occurs again, once, in Transit (perhaps as much to allow it to operate as a standalone work as to indicate a secure sense-of-self).

There is a continuing focus on discovery and identity, on illusory establishment and progress, on personal resolutions and revolutions.

Still, characters and scenes both reveal and conceal. One of the most satisfying aspects of the work is the sense that rereadings would be just as rewarding for readers who enjoy puzzling and layered narratives.

“She would start to get this surreal feeling, as if she was looking back on something while it was actually occurring, but for some reason she never blamed it on the book: she always thought the sense of déjà vu was to do with her own life. Also, at other times, she remembered things: as if they’d happened to her personally when in fact they were only things she’d read about.”

A scene set in a salon, for instance, is relayed in considerable detail, no-nonsense language and unremarkable descriptions. Readers recognise the main character and her established relationship with the salon owner, whose workday is filled with typical frustrations and annoyances.

There is, too, the open discussion about covering grey hair which hints at matters left undiscussed (other realities being concealed). There are so many aspects of her life which she is keeping concealed (or which she feels are being concealed from her) that this becomes a superficial concern.

Their conversation alludes to a meaning-beyond, to cultural preoccupations, but remains an uncomplicated everyday exchange. (All of these conversations are recorded as observations for readers, not scenically but from a distance, though in a first-person voice.)

And, beyond this, another woman enters the salon, with her son (around the same age as our narrator’s two boys). Readers are meant to notice not only the woman, but also the fact that our narrator notices her, out of all the people in the salon – there, in her observed role of motherhood. She matters.

Then, there is the question of what the boy is concealing (which also resonates with some aspects of our narrator’s experience) and what is no longer concealable, as the scene plays out.

The salon scene is only a few pages long, but there are so many echoes therein. When the narrator remembers what it looks like at night, readers are given another clue.

“The room had become a dazzling chamber of reflecting surfaces while the world outside became opaque. Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there.”

Readers can apply this not only to this scene, but to the bulk of the work (Outline and Transit and the as-yet-unpublished third book, Kudos). The reflections are everywhere you look.

Some readers will inevitably feel as though they are standing on the sidewalk, observing the lights from the darkness. All the glitter disorienting, maybe even unpleasant. Other readers will pull open the door and take a seat. Marvel at the kaleidoscopability of it all.

Meet Faye. Ever-faint but gathering strength.


Transit’s superpower is its querying. 

Rachel Cusk’s novel follows Outline (2014), continues with the exploration of a woman’s life in flux, requires readers to participate in her reassembly, demands a belief in her which she lacks in her own self, and leaves readers with more questions still. Giller juries have recognized books with big ideas in the past, like current jury member Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs (which won the prize in 2015) and Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim (shortlisted in 1999). This year’s jury values open-mindedness in form and structure, and appreciates introspective and challenging narrative, although they could select a more readily accessible story.



  1. […] Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014) Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974) Carol Shields’ Unless (2000) […]

  2. Stefanie October 9, 2017 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Ouline is on my list but I haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Loved your review which makes me look forward to reading it, and Transit, even more!

    • buriedinprint October 12, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

      If you’re in the right mood for this one (and I think you’ll know straight away), I think you’ll find it fascinating/curious!

  3. JacquiWine October 4, 2017 at 11:49 am - Reply

    I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get very far with Outline – it was a book I needed to read in a particular month for book group, so maybe the time wasn’t right for me. That said, I really like what you have to say about the central character, her struggle with the gap between two states, and the way this manifests itself in the novel. That’s very astute of you!

    • Buried In Print October 6, 2017 at 10:29 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jacqui. There are so many layers in this novel that I couldn’t even begin to summarize them in a post: a bounty of arrows and dotted lines in my notes! The first time I read Outline, it was an epub, and it wasn’t the right time for me either. All I knew at the end was that she was clever and I wasn’t ready for clever in the middle of the night reading on my tablet. This time, pencil in hand, and hard copies, I was ready to puzzle it out and am now (unexpectedly) really keen to read the third!

  4. Naomi October 4, 2017 at 10:51 am - Reply

    I hope the book is as good as your review! This might seem like an odd thing to say, but Faye seems like the perfect name for her.
    I keep meaning to tell you that I love your Giller-a-bility feature. 🙂

    • Buried In Print October 6, 2017 at 10:25 am - Reply

      it is the perfect name for her, isn’t it? And the fact that you think so makes me wonder if you might find a way to enjoy Transit more now that you can imagine calling her SOMEthing. (Thank you. It gets me thinking.)

  5. Café Society October 4, 2017 at 3:45 am - Reply

    I thought I had read at least one novel by Cusk but when I checked her bibliography out I found I was wrong. This sounds interesting to me because my research work is into the ways in which narrative can be organised and it appears that Cusk is experimenting with that. Another one for the tbr pile. I ought to say thank you, but when I look at the size of that pile I. Not certain that grateful is what I’m feeling right now!

    • Buried In Print October 6, 2017 at 10:23 am - Reply

      chuckles Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I’m…sorry? (I ought to say.)

      That sounds like fascinating research. And this trilogy of Cusk’s would definitely be of interest. Are you familiar with Andre Alexis quincunx project, beginning with Pastoral? How he establishes certain themes across five (seemingly separate) books fascinates me.

      • Café Society October 6, 2017 at 11:17 am - Reply

        No I’m not but I’m off now to see if I can find a copy of the first one. Thanks.

        • Buried In Print October 6, 2017 at 11:29 am - Reply

          Each of the works in the cycle functions independently, so on one hand Pastoral reads like a quiet, small-town story, but if you like the first one enough to read on, then you might enjoy teasing out the way he layers/reflects/refracts various themes across the volumes (which I only enjoy as a casual reader – I expect there is much to unearth if one were to study it).

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'