Everything about Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life is at odds with the ease suggested by the book’s title. When protagonist Stella Benson flees her complications in London—job, parents, husband—for reasons she doesn’t disclose other than that she’s unhappy, she hopes life will be sweeter and simpler in the country. She’s wrong, delightfully so. Cusk starts the story at a fast clip and keeps the pace speeding like an arrow, sweeping the reader — breathless and clueless as Stella — into the romp. Stella can’t help herself from becoming ensnarled in predicaments from cheerfully uncomfortable to hilaroulsy life-threatening. Each day of her new country life sprouts opportunity for disasters. The reader sees them coming at the same time as Stella, or a moment before she does, which makes them doubly sportive.
Lesson: Give your character trouble and misery
Teachers and books on writing craft push us to give our characters trouble. Make them miserable! Put them in predicaments! Watch them squirm! I’ve always found this hard to do. I don’t like trouble; I prefer happiness. But happiness start to finish contains no transformation, no character arc. Early in my writing career, I learned about the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy. A Comedy starts with misery, ends with happiness (or promise of.) A Tragedy starts with happiness, and ends with misery (or promise of.)
The Country Life is a Comedy. Whatever Stella endured in her London life was bad enough to make her want to escape to an anticipated idyllic life in the country. But if Cusk handed Stella what she wanted, there would be no story. From the moment Stella steps foot in the country, she is plagued by sunburn, insect bites, tarred roads, allergies, heat — a myriad of problems. Her off-balance sense of self engenders pratfalls, thievery, near car-wrecks, pet abuse, and near-drowning. This woman lives on the edge. She flings, has flung, and will continue to fling herself at life, even after the story’s end. She’s a flinger. And we love her for it!
She’s propelled by opposite forces within — bravery and embarrassment (or desire to avoid it), meticulous obsession and recklessness. She intends well, but misses, and suffers the consequences of her actions. Hey—better her than us! The joy of this kind of book is in our believing that Stella will survive, maybe even triumph!, as we cheer her on from our comfortable reading spot.
Lesson: For a Comedy, make trouble comedic
We learn a valuable lesson from Cusk about dishing out trouble: To keep it comedic, spoon a dollop of black humor. Stella has no driver’s license, but chauffeurs her ward, Martin, to town. He’s a disabled teenager, wheelchair bound, for whom she’s been hired as a companion and helper. They make it to town—barely—to Martin’s school and need to get back home. In the parking lot, Martin encourages her (what teenager wouldn’t love the adrenalin rush of this illicit ride!), “You’re doing fine, Stel-la.” She protests, “I could get us both killed….What if I injured you? You could be crippled for life.”
Lesson: Give trouble a purpose
Martin, a wise young man with family problems of his own, engages Stella in philosophical discussions that illumine her plight—we still aren’t sure, really, why she’s fled London.
[Stella speaking:] “I happen to believe that the search for happiness is often itself the greatest cause of unhappiness.”
“But if you were happy, you wouldn’t be searching,” said Martin.
“I didn’t say I was. I was speaking generally. I think it is almost impossible to be happy and to know yourself to be so at one and the same time. People believe that happiness is a goal, as opposed merely to the absence of problems. Looking for happiness is like looking for love. How do you know when you’ve found it?”
“I always imagined they came together,” said Martin.
“Nonsense. Love makes people more miserable than anything else.”
Cusk could have told us more about the character’s early problems through exposition or had Stella narrate her own back story. But this masterful author writes a character who give us her own evidence for comparison. We see the misery she encounters through her misguided choices and get a sense that whatever the misery was that she escaped from in London was, at least in part, of her own making.
Lesson: Mirror emotions in the physical
Love and all its complexities — the difficulties of loving and being loved—are what Stella is escaping from and discovering in The Country Life. But love is abstract. Insect bites, sunburn, dangerous roads and near drowning are not.
Cusk uses an old mirror found in the cottage where Stella lives as a prop, in standard literary and inventive ways, to show us Stella. Through her reflection, Stella reveals her interior thoughts to herself and us. Our heroine (or anti-heroine) is, at the same time, so self-absorbed and detached from herself physically and emotionally that she can barely function. Her descriptions have her at arm’s length to herself. “Sensing that I stood on the brink of an abyss of self-consciousness—a void into which I often fall, rendering me unable, even over several hours, to dress myself—I dug deeper into the cases and was surprised to find a summer dress I did not remember packing. It seemed imperative that having made this discovery I activate it immediately and with determination, before my first, faint protests…”
As the story progresses, Stella becomes more real to herself and us, more present in her body, and more aware of herself in the grander scheme of life.
“I stood transfixed by the mirror, for some time, accustoming myself to this stranger of whose desires and motives I was not entirely sure.”
“Whatever cream it was that the creature had applied to my sunburn had worked wonders, for when I got up and looked in the wardrobe mirror I saw that the colour of my skin had completely altered from emrgency red to an attractive brown.”
““Before I could fend it off, the sight had filled me with a sense of my destitution….What surprised me was to realize how familiar this sight was. I had seen it on busy London pavements, amidst a throng of faces; one or two whose eyes looked out from their bodies as if from behind bars, as they paid for the crime of permitting their misfortunes to outweigh the space their flesh was entitled to occupy.
Stella’s arc transforms her from being armored and distant from herself to begin to being able to be close to at least one other person. She’s confronted herself in the mirror but still has trouble facing the choices she made in abandoning her past. Finally, someone from her former life chances to find her in the country and will be at the dinner table with Martin’s family, to whom Stella has lied and omitted truths. Martin advises her…“Everyone has to face things. It’s the only way.” He helps her gather courage.
In the final scene, we don’t just glimpse her or see her reflection, we are in her skin “..presently I felt the warm clammy pressure of another hand, Martin’s, taking one of mine.”
A clammy hand may not be Stella’s idea of true happiness, but in the manner of a Comedy, the story promises happiness for this character at some point beyond the book’s ending.