Stella leaves her life as a legal secretary in London, discards her possessions and cuts all family ties to become an au pair to 17-year-old Martin, disabled son of the Maddens, a snooty Sussex farming family. This rash move quickly appears typical of Stella’s hasty approach to her own future, and Cusk’s richly comic seventh novel proves an enjoyable sortie into the hazards of Stella’s first week in the country.
Her own ghastly upbringing leaves Stella unprepared. She briefly swoons over Piers Madden while trying to box clever with his moodily erratic wife Pamela; Martin’s siblings are satisfyingly grotesque and a whiff of local scandal infuses Stella’s bewildered perceptions.
Domestic strains are Cusk’s speciality, and the prickly intimacy that Stella develops with Martin is both charming and slightly edgy. Naïve introspection and formal language give her the unsettling presence of a Jane Austen heroine adrift in a Magnus Mills fable, one in which the social landscape is always slightly out of kilter.
The Country Life, by Rachel Cusk, Faber, RRP£7.99, 342 pages