Tolstoy famously observed that all happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This claim certainly applies to the Hansburys, the fictional brood in Rachel Cusk's brittle, funny black comedy, In the Fold. A more eccentric and solipsistic lot would be hard to find, and it is a testament to this Whitbread Award-winning novelist's considerable talents that we are compelled to read about these rather unlikable characters, even when their behavior ventures just this side of the pathological.
In the Fold, which landed on the Man Booker Prize longlist earlier this year, follows in the tradition of novels by such writers as Muriel Spark, Bernice Rubens and Beryl Bainbridge masters of a kind of well-observed, off-kilter and slightly creepy social comedy that only the British seem able to pull off. (Perhaps it's because they are all literary descendents of Evelyn Waugh.) Cusk brings a youthful sensibility to the form her modern-day Britain is overrun with cookie-cutter housing estates (with ironic names like The Meadows), sporting such amenities as gold bathroom fixtures and Jacuzzis. But at its core, her story is about intangibles and unchangeables such as family betrayal, the insidious corrosion of some marriages and the illusions we allow ourselves about the lives of others.
No DNA test is needed to establish this novel's lineage: Cusk's setup borrows openly from Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Like Charles Ryder, our narrator-hero, Michael, is a callow, middle-class young man who goes home for a weekend with Adam, a university friend, and is initially dazzled by all he meets. There's a salty, tyrannical father tethered to both his first wife and the woman he left her for; an emotionally anemic son; a self-centered, alluring younger sister. The Hansburys may not be as rich as the Marchmains, but they do own a farm called Egypt Hill, with a sprawling white house by the sea that serves as both the glue and the solvent for the family's protective sense of entitlement. Years after the initial meeting, Michael, like Charles before him, will figure out that this lively, seemingly harmonious family is not all it pretends to be.
Trapped in an astringent marriage, Michael has lost touch with Adam, but looks back fondly on his stay at Egypt Hill. When he is almost killed by a stone balcony that falls off the front of his deteriorating Georgian townhouse, Michael calls Adam, now a chartered surveyor, for advice. Adam urges him to come to the farm to help with the spring lambing, so off he goes, his taciturn young son in tow. But the Egypt Hill he encounters is no longer the carefree place of memory. The family has fractured in odd ways, and the illness of the curmudgeonly patriarch has brought all sorts of resentments and secrets to light. What once seemed to him charming family quirks now signal something deeply wrong.
The Hansburys' peculiarities play out in soulless marriages and appalling child-rearing methods that disturb even the maritally and parentally challenged Michael. There is also a family secret that slowly comes to light, though the persistent elusiveness of the truth leaves Michael unsettled, and awakens in him questions about what drew him to the Hansburys in the first place. Cusk serves up a dark message here, but one punctuated with a mordant wit that's hard to resist. Her perceptions can bore in like a laser, though her incessant use of similes can begin to wear thin (there is hardly a paragraph that doesn't contain "like" or the phrase "it was as though"). Where Cusk ultimately diverges from Waugh is in her essential conclusions, which favor psychology over theology. Brideshead, of course, is a novel not only about a deteriorating upper-class family, but about the often punishing demands of religious faith, and how human weakness, or what we believe to be weakness, can either shape or warp our lives. Cusk offers a far more secular vision of moral rot, making In the Fold, with all its comic gloom, a novel well suited to our arid, menacing and self-absorbed times. Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.