Stella Benson leaves London in mysterious circumstances to take up a post in the Sussex countryside as au pair to a disabled teenager.
She arrives in the middle of a heatwave and indeed, over the next week makes extraordinarily heavy weather of everything she undertakes, from entering the village shop to getting dressed. Her every inept action leads to disaster; she cannot, it seems, wash up without causing a flood, walk across a carpet without leaving a trail, or pick up a bottle without it leaping from her hand.
Stock comic characters abound, from shrill upper-class women to taciturn inbred farm labourers and strange “creatures” with healing powers. Huge themes lurk in the woodshed, including incest, madness and infidelity. These are picked up, dallied with, then casually put down again.
Cusk’s prose style is something of a jungle, too – dense and overwritten.
Despite all this, the novel is funny, acute and compelling, drawing us into Stella’s buccolic misadventures and, the real subject of the book, her search for motivation and identity, but leaving us, ultimately, none the wiser.