Rachel Cusk is an extraordinarily gifted and slyly satirical writer – but with a worldview so bleak that some of her earlier novels ("The Country Life" and "In the Fold") read like English drawing-room comedies shot through with ribbons of August Strindberg.
Arlington Park, her sixth novel, offers no such comic relief. Set during a single, rainy day in a stultifying, safe, fairly affluent English suburb, it follows a handful of bitterly unhappy mothers through their daily routines.
Time, in such short supply to busy people, can seem endless to mothers of small children. Cusk's characters fill the yawning hours dropping kids off at school, meeting for coffee, buying groceries, desultorily trying on clothes at the inaptly named Merrywood Mall – and seething at the emptiness of their existence.
Like Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," whose dawn-to-dusk structure it shares, Cusk's novel builds to a dinner party at which guests discuss the decline of the English. But "Arlington Park" owes an equal debt to the great American mid-20th century novels of suburban anomie, including Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road," John Cheever's "Bullet Park," and Evan S. Connell's "Mrs. Bridge."
However, rather than focusing on men who commute by train to dull jobs, Cusk's concern is with women in their 30s who mainly stay at home with their growing broods, "stranded ... in their ignominious version of living."
These women have nothing – and everything – to complain about. Their husbands are neither ogres nor addicts, their children are healthy, they have few financial worries – but their lives just don't add up. Cusk takes them seriously, and writes about them with prose that chills and smokes like dry ice.
Julia Randall, once an exceptional student, now teaches at a private girls' school. Her husband, also a teacher, has worked wonders at a rough public school, and he adores Julia. But she had expected more out of herself and her life, and she feels suffocated. The resultant residue of bitterness "lay in her veins like lead."
Maisie Carrington convinced her solicitor husband, Dom, to move out of London to a lesser job, and then discovered that "she could not endure the life they were making for themselves." She takes out her "nameless dissatisfaction" on Dom and their children. The nadir of the day in question occurs when she throws her daughter's lunch box at the wall and shouts, "You're ruining my life!"
Maisie assuages her guilt by rationalizing that such outbursts are better than the way she was treated as a child: "her parents had organised their resentments into scheduled episodes of authorised violence," regularly paddling her with a wooden spatula.
Solly Kerr-Leigh's story could well stand alone. Heavily pregnant with her fourth child, she finds herself entranced with the luxurious bath oils and stylish clothes of the Italian woman who rents her spare room. Solly envies Paola's freedom from "domestic slavery" – but is discomfited to learn that her glamorous boarder has a child whom she left in Bologna.
Cusk marshals everything from the dreary weather to the "three grey views" from the mall restaurant to reflect her characters' dark moods. Even a toddler's stuffed animal mirrors the women's put-upon feelings: "Robbie was grey and worn out with Ella's need for him. He looked shapeless and insensate with the drudgery of love."
What offsets this bleakness is Cusk's stunning prose. Anthropomorphized expensive cars crouch aggressively with "annihilating" gazes while kites puff out their cheeks in the wind. People, on the other hand, merge with the ugly, overdeveloped landscape. Pregnant Solly's body "was like a village that over time had sprawled and grown until it became a bustling centre, cut through with new roads and modern developments, some of them unsightly."
The women in "Arlington Park" are less accepting of their lot than the men. Solly is terrified by "this journey of life, this turbulent passage through days and nights, never stopping, never knowing what it meant."
Yet somehow they all muddle through. As one character concludes sagely, "That's all you can do really, is steer your own course through it and not think too much.... You worked with what you had and tried to improve it."
Cusk's vision isn't cheery, but then, Virginia Woolf isn't exactly heartwarming, either – and she didn't have children to burden (or buoy!) her.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.