A breath of fresh country air

 

Fiction: At first glance Rachel Cusk's In the Fold seems to be yet another example of the English class novel. A young student is invited to his room-mate's sister's birthday party. They set out in a fashionably decrepit car and in a few short pages fetch up at a farm called Egypt where an eccentric family awaits them, exasperatedly discussing the arrangements for that night's party - thus living out yet another cliché of Englishness: the yeoman farmer, the good husbandman passing his days in eccentric rusticity.

In the classic mode, the narrator's association with these people should confer both pain and joy, the underlying message being that hanging around with the upper classes betters people. Of course, Cusk's purpose is to establish this very stereotype in our minds, and then to demolish it.

The book is about the deceptiveness of appearance. Wherever we look, characters are presented as reflecting surfaces, and we understand them only by the way in which they distort what they reflect. Their shallowness is most evident in dialogue, but Cusk overdoes the technique by using it four or five pages at a time without adding to our understanding of the characters or advancing the action significantly. These slow-moving non-dialogues eventually form standing ponds at the heart of each chapter; we must wade through them to make progress, but we resent it. It is a surprise, therefore, when the final chapters suggest a hidden life.

Chapter two begins after a lapse of 10 years or so and the great clockwork has moved on; the young students have become settled married men and everyone's life is a shambles. There are no happy people, nobody's marriage is an unmixed blessing, nobody's child is perfect. Entropy rules, okay. The narrator, cursed by an inability to belong - even to his wife and child - remains at all times a distant observer of his own life, and Cusk bravely eschews the lazy fashion for sympathetic characters, driving us onward into his alienation and unhappiness with a blackthorn stick and a brusque manner.

Egypt itself, the kind of farm that makes - or made - the English countryside such a satisfying experience for the city-dweller, is rotten at the core; it's not a farm so much as a conservative icon. Under pressure from falling farm incomes and encroaching urbanisation, it is a housing estate in waiting. For the children who will inherit it, it is a threat rather than a promise. Its slow death, and the nasty business that keeps it in existence, are the secrets that underlie their empty conversations.

Cusk strikes a harsh poetry out of irredeemable lives, making In the Fold not so much a portrait of the decay of rural life as a satire on our illusions about it. It strikes, not just at the Tory heartland, but at the Tory heart itself.

William Wall's latest novel is This is the Country. His most recent collection of poetry is Fahrenheit Says Nothing to Me

In the Fold By Rachel Cusk Faber & Faber, 224pp. £10.99