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Impressive but alienating,
This review is from: The Bradshaw Variations (Hardcover)
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This novel follows the extended Bradshaw family - three brothers, their wives and children, and the Bradshaw parents - through the course of a single year, although the sense of time passing in this rather static narrative is not particularly clear. The book is composed of set-pieces - almost every chapter features another character in a different setting - and this is both its strength and its weakness.
I'd assumed from the title that the book would trace the contrasts and links between the different branches of the Bradshaw family, but in fact one set of characters - the middle brother, Thomas, his wife Tonie and their fragile daughter Alexa - get much more attention than the others, and often the focus in the other families is on the wives rather than their husbands, so clearly Rachel Cusk is not particularly interested in the effect of genetic inheritance and upbringing here. What works brilliantly are her observations of people and their interactions. The novel is very short, and often characters are presented in only a few lines or pages, but Cusk manages to pinion each personality exactly - from the youngest brother Leo's expedition to buy a coat, to the oldest brother Howard's wife Claudia's insistence on having a `studio' in her garden for her `work', which in fact she never enters.
However, despite Cusk's obvious talent, this is a very difficult novel to warm to. Her previous book, `Arlington Park', which I enjoyed very much, was similarly observational, but far more compulsive as the author illuminated the common predicaments of her five female characters. I didn't really feel any desire to read on here, as I sympathised with very few of the Bradshaws. Thomas, although hapless, is perhaps the most human, and his basic decency but overall weakness is beautifully illustrated in the chapter concerning the beginning of his relationship with Tonie. As he already had a girlfriend, Clare, when the two met, Tonie recalls how they would take long walks along the river trying to work out how he would leave Clare, but if she tried to make any advances he would avert his face - to avoid being `unfaithful'. To Tonie, this seems symbolic of their relationship as a whole: `She wants to remind him of all that caution and concern he went in for by the river. She wants to draw his attention to the fact that once, when it mattered, he stinted Tonie's share.'
The development of Thomas and Tonie as characters, however, contrasts with the rather skimpy treatment of the other families in the novel, who, although precisely depicted, never exactly spring to life. I was left with the feeling that Cusk would have done better to focus entirely on just this set of Bradshaws, or to write something much longer. In the end, I admired her skill, but the book leaves little impression. For a better example of her work, I would recommend reading the more focused `Arlington Park' or even `In the Fold'.