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Notes From the Book Review Archives

Jenny Offill reviews Rachel Cusk’s new novel, “Kudos,” in this week’s issue. In 1999, Lisa Zeidner wrote enthusiastically about “The Country Life,” Cusk’s third novel and American debut. Read an excerpt below.

Fresh air! Real people! A return to family values! Right-o. The moment a character in a British novel craves country life, gleeful readers know what to expect: the doddering, besotted aristocrats; the grand old manor decaying; the local folk toothless perverts; even the animals not pleasingly pastoral but randy and repulsive.

Rachel Cusk’s third novel, “The Country Life,” stands squarely in this comic tradition. The risk was that the jokes wouldn’t translate to an American audience. But they do, handily. The first of this novelist’s books to be published here, “The Country Life” boasts pitch-perfect tonal control and humor of such sly subversion that the novel’s premise transcends mere skit.

Twenty-nine-year-old Stella Benson ditches her London life, packs light and takes off for the tiny town of Hilltop, in Sussex. There she is to help Piers and Pamela Madden of Franchise Farm care for their disabled 17-year-old son, Martin. The last governess has departed under mysterious circumstances. Stella herself, it appears, has a secret in her past that she is eager to bury.

The pleasure of “The Country Life” derives from how skillfully Cusk draws us into “the solipsistic cabbage patch” of Stella’s consciousness. Cusk’s Whitbread Prize-winning first book, “Saving Agnes,” was an energetic dating novel, the type of which “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is the most visible recent example — a genre featuring hapless but not conventionally helpless young women looking for love. “The Country Life” is an altogether stranger, more sophisticated confection. Stella’s love life is the very least of her problems. For this delightful novel about the governess from hell, maybe only the word “wicked” will do.

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