cover image The Country Life

The Country Life

Rachel Cusk. Picador USA, $24 (341pp) ISBN 978-0-312-19848-0

Whitbread winner Cusk's first novel to appear in America is a touching, hilarious narrative by a modern-day Jane Eyre who renounces her life in London in the hope of finding an uncomplicated existence in the Sussex countryside. After a frenzied throwing out of ""every vestige of love I had ever earned,"" unhappy, solitary Stella arrives in a tiny village to answer an advertisement for the job of caretaker to Martin Madden, the handicapped son of a rich farming family. Stella is prone to an ""inner derangement"": by the end of her second day among the nutty Maddens, she has broken out in hives, walked through a thorny hedge to avoid the front door, acquired a terrible sunburn and vomited. ""It seemed incredible that so much could have gone wrong in so short a time,"" she laments. Cusk's hyperbolic descriptions of these and the many other calamities in Stella's everyday life demonstrate that her desire to ""exist in a state of no complexity whatever"" will prove to be impossible, especially since her surly charge, Martin, is, in her early estimation, an ""evil dwarf."" Cusk has a marvelous knack for revealing character in a few deft lines of dialogue; Stella herself is utterly lovable and her pain genuine. Later, when Stella and Martin have grown close, he tells her,""Everyone has to face things. It's the only way."" Stella's particularly poignant attempt at facing her own inner oppression--and the surprising secrets in her past--will win Cusk many new readers, who will be eager to find her previous work, Saving Alice and The Temporary. (Jan.)