If you were brought up in a family with brothers and sisters, how alike or unalike are you? Even if you had broadly similar influences at home, did your reaction to those influences lead you in different directions? Are the choices we make, the mates we choose and the homes we build an 'echo' of the family we were born into and our place in it? As Rachel Cusk interestingly puts it, is each sibling is a variation on a theme?
The variations in Rachel Cusk's seventh book, The Bradshaw Variations, are the three adult children of bickering Mrs and Dads Bradshaw; Thomas and his wife Tonie, who has just taken a post as Head of Department, leaving Thomas at home to look after their daughter Alexa and play the piano, successful Howard and his highly-strung not-quite-artist wife Claudia, and the youngest, unsure Leo and his wife Susie, a sharp tongued alcoholic. Dissatisfaction, unhappiness and frustration permeate the year's progression, punctuated with minor disasters and the odd betrayal.
Form takes primacy over content here, and as a result the narrative meanders listlessly across the different branches of the family, culminating in a baffling dénouement. Reading The Bradshaw Variations is like trying to catch a bird with your bare hands, just as you think you have a grasp of a character it eludes you. It could be elegant, it could be daring, but coupled with the plodding introspection it begins to feel stodgy. Thomas in particular seems unable to make a cup of tea without considering his own insignificance in relation to the universe and his post-sex rumination on the strangeness that, 'transcendence should occur not by abandoning structure but by adhering to it exactly.' Is it really that strange? One would think religious transcendence occurs exactly by adhering to structure. Literary back flips and verbose flourishes in The Bradshaw Variations stand in place of what could have been a genuine and interesting investigation into the nature of sacrifice that comes with parenting and the horrible banality that it is to live in a family and want more.
This book is both very odd and very interesting in equal measure, because it manages to fill thirty two chapters without much of a plot and yet is still an engaging read. Admittedly, there are various little snippets of information that pad it out, and small events that are written up, but for the most part there is nothing you'd call an actual storyline per se.
The book follows the lives of the Bradshaw family - a couple, their grown up children and associated spouses, and the offspring. No two chapters are alike, and the changes in the characters being followed each time seem entirely random, with little continuity. It's almost as if someone asked the dozen or so people who feature to hand over extracts of their personal diaries, and then simply combined these extracts willy-nilly.
This is a book entirely about characters in both senses of the word, for the people who take roles in the book have distinct characteristics and traits unique to them: Thomas, a stay at home dad, fills his days with abstract questions on the nature of art; Alexa his precocious daughter is a social butterfly; Tonie, his ambitious wife, lets loose at the most inappropriate of times; Olga, their Polish lodger, no longer feels the need to belong, deducing that living will suffice.
One thing this book is keen on is indulgence. With no apparent need to keep things brief or focussed, we find entire chapters dedicated to the smallest things: a shopping trip to buy a coat, for example, or the memory of a former flame. It's neither a marathon nor a sprint, but a meandering wander through a year filled with crises and revelation. Nothing is rushed as the passages take us into the tiniest minutiae of often insignificant events, and yet you never get the feeling that you want people to hurry up and get to the good stuff, for this is the good stuff.
The splendour is in the details, the acute, shrewd observations of family life in all its guises. Though many of the topics are solemn - the accidental slaughtering of pets and serious childhood illnesses, for example - there is a subtle dark humour that permeates throughout. What's more, many of the situations described were so startlingly familiar to me, I wondered for a second whether Cusk was a close relative whose existence had slipped my mind. Happy families are all alike, but so, it seems, are weird, wacky, real ones.
I couldn't decide whether I liked the book or not, but in the end I did. It takes a while to 'get' as you wait for the story to start, but when it becomes clear it's never going to, you realise that's the beauty of it. It's all about the words and what they say, rather than the story and where it goes. Like a work of modern art, where the messages you get change every time you look at it based on your own interpretation, this is a book that will tell a different story every time you read.
My copy was hardback and courtesy of The Bookbag, but a paperback version has just been released in April 2010. ISBN 0571233619 - rrp £7.99