Pages Review: “Outline” by Rachel Cusk

“There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.”

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A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.

Beginning with the neighbouring passenger on the flight out and his tales of fast boats and failed marriages, the storytellers talk of their loves and ambitions and pains, their anxieties, their perceptions and daily lives. In the stifling heat and noise of the city the sequence of voice begins to weave a complex human tapestry. The more they talk the more elliptical their listener becomes, as she shapes and directs their accounts until certain themes begin to emerge: the experience of loss, the nature of family life, the difficulty of intimacy and the mystery of creativity itself.

Outline is a novel about writing and talking, about self-effacement and self-expression, about the desire to create and the human art of self-portraiture in which that desire finds its universal form. 

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Outline by Rachel Cusk is described as a novel in ten conversations. For most of the book, we‘re not really shown much about our main character, and even her name (Faye) is only revealed near the end. Instead we get to paint her story through a series of interactions throughout her stay in Athens as a teacher for a writing course. You might know by now that I love novels with well-written conversations, and Outline certainly has some of the best ones in ALL the books I’ve ever read. ⁣

“The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite – and if that is the case, how are we ever meant to know, except by existing in a state of absolute pessimism, that once again we are fooling ourselves?”

I love how this book is so profound without being pretentious. The seemingly simplistic writing is stripped of frivolous details, to make room for the essentials: understanding human behaviors and motivations. Though we meet different people with various personalities and background stories, we do get a central theme of love, life, marriage, feminism and creative pursuits. ⁣

“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”

I think in removing the focus on the main character’s story, Rachel Cusk has been more succesful than other authors in really putting the reader in the narrator’s place—I really felt I was the direct receiver of all the speakers’ thoughts and opinions, I absorbed the intense discussions and the awkward moments, just as I felt the heat of Athens’ sun and smelled the salt of the Ionian sea. ⁣

“I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean: a desire for freedom, an impulse to move, tugged at me as though it were a thread fastened to my chest. It was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had.”

Thanks to the wonderful ladies who recommended this book to me: @ntodiesh and @novellevague 💕 Do check out their respective #bookstagram pages for the most awesome book recommendations. They have introduced me to a number of new favorite authors. I’m also very happy to know that this book is only the first in a trilogy. It’s very rare for me to encounter a series outside of the fantasy/crime genre. This novel is just so refreshing in its unique style.

Where are you in your bookish vacations now? Let’s chat in the comments!


About the Author

Photo Shape Editor:

Rachel Cusk was born in Canada, and spent some of her childhood in Los Angeles, before her family returned to England, in 1974, when Cusk was 8 years old. She read English at New College, Oxford.

Cusk is the Whitbread Award–winning author of two memoirs, including The Last Supper, and seven novels, including Arlington Park, Saving Agnes, The Temporary, The Country Life, and The Lucky Ones.

She has won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes: her most recent novel, Outline (2014), was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize and the Bailey’s prize, and longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’

She lives in Brighton, England.

Book Details


Hardcover, 249 pages
Published September 4th 2014 by Faber & Faber
Original Title: Outline
ISBN 0571233627 (ISBN13: 9780571233625)
Literary Awards: Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2015), Governor General’s Literary Awards / Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général Nominee for Fiction (2015), Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2015), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2016), Folio Prize Nominee (2015)Goldsmiths Prize Nominee (2014)
Genres: Literary Fiction | Contemporary


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5 thoughts on “Pages Review: “Outline” by Rachel Cusk

  1. been looking for a good new book especially during these times, lovely review will definitely check this one out x



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