Monday, August 13, 2007

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I finished reading Arlington Park over a week ago and I've been pondering since then why I found this book so interesting when it is about an ordinary day, when nothing much happens, in the lives of bored, suburban housewives.

This book starts off well for me with the opening sentence: “All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.” The entire chapter is then devoted to a description of the rain falling on this English suburb contrasted with the neighbouring city. This was very apt because as I started to read the rain was falling and continued to fall for some considerable time. Rachel Cusk's writing is most impressive in this description of rain.The monotony of it is emphasisied by the numerous repetions of "It fell..."; its sound is reproduced: "like the sound of uproarious applause. It was if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange unsettling sound ... as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands."

This was only one of a few books that I was reading, so I hadn’t finish it when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and that was just one book too many to add to my piles of reading. Unusually for me, I decided to concentrate on reading just one book at a time and read Harry Potter straight through.

Then I decided to finish, one by one, the other books I’d started. Surprisingly, this worked quite well and as I was away from home I did have more time to just sit and read. The weather was good too, so that helped. I sat on the patio at Twilles Barn enjoying the sunshine, cups of tea, glasses of wine and my books. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman was next as I was two thirds of the way into that – more about that in another post.

Then I picked up Arlington Park again and when I began to read I wished I'd not put it down. I was about half way through it and the rain had stopped falling on Arlington Park and the sun was shining there, bringing people out from their cars, houses and streets down the paths into the park. This section reminded me of Virginia Wolf’s short story Kew Gardens with its descriptions of people in the park on a sunny day. Location is important in this book, with vivid well-drawn descriptions of places as well as the people who live there and their relationships. It’s a well-written, easy to read book that makes you want to read on, which is amazing really as it’s about an ordinary day in the lives of several women, their relationships and the everyday minutiae of life.

My overall view of Arlington Park is that it is a book about angry, discontented women who are feeling either inadequate, or as though something they cannot identify is missing from their lives, blaming their discontent and frustration on their husbands and children. We meet Juliet first, who is a part-time teacher, married with two children. It is morning and Juliet is upset, feeling that she is the person who does everything, angry at men and the way she perceives they treat women, “All men are murderers”, Juliet thought. Juliet and Benedict are invited to the Langhams for dinner in the evening.

Then there is Amanda, a perfectionist who appears cool and detached (she loves her car) and in control of her life, whereas she actually feels that she is inadequate and boring. She has invited other mothers for coffee and is preparing for their visit, when her sister phones with news that their grandmother has just died. She appears to be in the novel as a link, as one of the mothers who visits her is Christine Langham (who gives the dinner party in the evening) and it is Christine who is next in the spotlight, when she, Maisie and Stephanie drive to Merrywood Mall, the shopping centre three miles from Arlington Park. I would have liked to know more about Amanda and how she dealt with her feelings on hearing of her grandmother’s death.

We see the shopping expedition mainly from Christine’s point of view. She contrasts the refinement of living in Arlington Park with the surrounding areas they cross to get to the Mall. She is afraid of “inauthenticity which seemed to reveal to her the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life.” The Shopping Centre makes her feel good, that life is full of possibilities – but how it makes her feel good and what these possibilities are seem also to be beyond her grasp. I particularly like the description of the shopping mall:

“It was like an illustration of the heart: people were carried upwards by the escalators, eventually to re-emerge, oxygenated by shopping. … The place was full of people, on the escalators, all along the glass-fronted galleries milling on the broad avenues that led off the main hall, yet the acoustics and saturating glassy light deadened the sense of human congress so that they seemed almost to be swimming or floating rather than walking.”

The there is Solly, who has no connection with the other women apart from the fact that she also lives in Arlington Park. She too feels she’s a failure “… a sack stuffed with children, a woman who had spent and spent her life until there was none left …”. She's pregnant and dreading the birth of yet another child. Children are either ignored or considered to be a nuisance or a hindrance to most of the women in this book.

Back then to Juliet and her boredom with life. It is now late afternoon and she is taking the after school Literary Club. Juliet’s disillusionment with life is expressed in her thoughts on the pointlessness of it all:

“”And what was it all for? What was the point of it? In what sense did the girls, even the scientists, profit from their hard work and their grades? Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them. The girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man and little by little he would murder her.”

More doom and gloom follows when we enter Maisie Carrington’s house and are confronted with her melancholy. She feels divorced from life, as a character in a play, seeing herself “always animated by a nameless dissatisfaction.” She is driven by her needs into her marriage, her job, house and children, but always feeling “not right, like a boat in a harbour where the tide has gone out, lying helplessly on her side in the mud with the neutered fin of her rudder drying in the air.”

This sense of the hopelessness of these women’s lives concludes the book with the dinner party in the evening at the Langhams, where Juliet and Benedict Randall, Maisie and Dom Carrington and a new couple Dave and Maggie Spooner meet. By this time Christine is at the end of her tether, preparing for the dinner party (reminders of Virginia Wolf's Mrs Dalloway?) and feeling that all life is work and that she has to do it all, Joe, her husband arousing feelings of mutiny within her. I did enjoy this description, needless to say I'm glad I was reading it and not having to eat the end result:

"With a knife Chrisitine slit open a chicken breast and forced the herb
butter into the jellied flesh with her fingers. It was hard to get the butter to
stay in. It kept coming away on her fingers. She prised open the slit and wiped
her fingers all over the veined insides. Liquid ran out and coated the gobs of
butter and made them slippery. "

Christine, like Juliet is an angry, self-centred woman, dissatisfied with her life. “You’ve got to love just - being alive”, she says more in despair than in hope, it seems. Yet the final paragraph in this book does hold out some hope for Christine, but only through Joe. She looks at him and “sees his face as a form of safekeeping, the whole world of herself concentrated on this little stage.”

To me this is a book about the depression, discontent and the despair some women feel trapped in lives that they find meaningless and futile. I am amazed that such topics can be made so entertaining and enjoyable. I think I like it because of Cusk's style of writing - the descriptions of people and places so that they are real, I can see and hear them in my mind. At times I laughed out loud and at other times I was irritated by the attitudes and prejudices, but at all times I was entertained. It was nominated for the Orange Prize, but lost out to Half a Yellow Sun, which I have waiting to be read. I only hope that I enjoy it as much as Arlington Park.

7 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

This sounds like a book I would like -- I shall have to check it out!

Nan - said...

I wanted to let you know that I've given you an award and you may find it here:

http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/
2007/08/nice-matters.html

stefanie said...

I've heard such good things about this book. I'm going to have to make it a point to find myself a copy!

Heather (errantdreams) said...

I love the pieces you quote; they're incredibly vivid. I can FEEL that butter and the chicken.

BooksPlease said...

Dorothy and Stefanie, I do hope you enjoy the book.

Nan, thank you so much for award - you're truly nice.

Heather, I've just been over to your blog - very interesting. How could I forget about cookery books? My latest acquisition is Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries nd that's a good read, as are Nigella Lawson's books.

As for Christine's chicken in Arlington Park, it sounds absolutely disgusting, as you say an incredibly vivid image.

Gracie said...

What a GREAT variety of books you read! And I love John Cleese's description of Michael Palin in the next entry (happy birthday, by the way). I miss England so desperately (I last lived there from 1989-1993, and haven't been back since a birthday trip in 1996). Your blog reminds me I must start saving money for another visit, a long one next time, I hope. I'm also reminded that, in the meantime, I shouldn't be saving so desperately for the trip that I fail to budget adequately for books from Amazon.uk

danielle said...

I have this as well. I have never read Cusk, but I am looking forward to it. I've heard good things about this book.