In deceptively placid, understated prose, “Transit,” Rachel Cusk’s ninth novel, resumes the story of Faye, the writer, teacher and mother who narrates “Outline.”

Having ended her troubled marriage, Faye leaves the English countryside and moves to London, where she buys a house that requires extensive repairs. Thus, the home she chooses for herself and her sons becomes uninhabitable for her children until the construction subsides.

“You haven’t made life easy for yourself, I’ll say that much,” a builder tells her. It is tempting to focus on this moment, to consider it a clue Cusk offers her readers, some of whom will likely find Faye to be more withholding, more private, than many first-person narrators they encounter.

Indeed, Faye isn’t inclined to make confessions; if anything, she is a quiet confessor. Her neighbors detest her because of her noisy house renovations, although she cannot be accused, generally, of making much sound at all.

Nearly every chapter reads as a record of a conversation, in which Faye says little as she listens to deeply personal histories. Some people are well known to her — an ex-lover, Gerard, or Amanda, a friend — but some are merely acquaintances: her student, Jane, or her hairstylist, or a colleague’s boyfriend, or the foreman working on her house. They talk primarily about children, marriage or sex, with little restraint; Gerard, in particular, goes so far as to describe how he met his wife, adding, “Diane tells that story better than I do.” Part of Cusk’s project is to reveal how this narrator can tell a story, even if she is listening most of the time.

Faye’s rare contributions, vague on the surface, suggest that pain and vulnerability can be managed through concision. In conversation with Gerard, for instance, she reports, “I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t … perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.”

Increasingly, Faye’s brevity and reticence come to resemble a form of intimacy between her and the reader.

This is a marked contrast from the way Faye’s colleagues perform intimacy. At a literary festival, she shares a stage with two garrulous writers who cannot seem to stop talking about themselves: One of them feigns reluctance, and the other doesn’t bother. At a catastrophic dinner party — one of the book’s finest, liveliest scenes — a woman’s careless chatter at the table delivers a great shock to her daughter. How much should we say, this novel asks, and when should we say it? To whom?

In Cusk’s case, a few words are enough to keep readers engrossed, waiting for more.

 

Jackie Thomas Kennedy’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly and elsewhere. She was a Stegner fellow at Stanford University.

Transit
By: Rachel Cusk.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 260 pages, $26.