Cusk's 'Saving Agnes' -- virtues of the ordinary

January 23, 2000|By Speer Morgan | Speer Morgan,Special to the Sun

"Saving Agnes," by Rachel Cusk. Picador. 224 pages. $23.

Rachel Cusk's second novel is a modest, old-fashioned tale of a well-educated young woman trying to find her place in the world. Cusk, whose first novel , "The Country Life," won the Whitbread Prize, doesn't give us much reason to be interested in Agnes. She is sharing a house in London with a nice but neurotically companionable roommate named Merlin and with Nina, another woman her age.

She's dating a creep, yet the inevitable demise of their relationship leaves her, and possibly some of the readers of this novel, almost too disappointed to want to go on. Agnes' yearning is so intense that she is blind to what's going on around her. But blind though she may be, we are intrigued by how intently she is searching.

She works for a tiny trade magazine about which we learn little except that she has a kooky fellow worker and an evangelical Christian boss. The neighborhood where she lives -- somewhere in central London -- is not of much interest to her except for a mild fascination she has for street people. As the novel proceeds, in fact, one fears that it is going to follow Agnes into a fog bank of undefined preoccupations and distractions.

Yet, there is method to the spaciness of this book. Unhappy, struggling with a sense of inadequacy, our heroine is nevertheless terribly sincere in her effort to understand her dilemma. As much as anything, her melancholy arises from the very lack of definition of things, the constant change, the shifting and impermanence of everything. Her friends lose their jobs, she loses her boyfriend (good riddance), the house that she and her roomies rent is literally cracking and falling apart -- nothing remains the same. People seem to be at cross-purposes, tumbling against each other down some tunnel of time.

Her parents are living in the suburbs, and she and her brother go there for a couple of visits. The residual fondness in her family is well disguised, but eventually begins to peek out from under their fussiness. The great thing about "Saving Agnes," and what makes it worth reading, is how our young heroine bumbles her way, through sheer force of sincerity, to an understanding that there is no perfect world, with solid end points and reliable categories.

She realizes that she herself doesn't have to be extraordinary or even different from the rest of humankind; indeed, if anything, accepting the role of being perfectly ordinary is the way to begin to engage the world. Being just exactly where she is, nowhere else, on the bus riding to work in the morning or anywhere. This is not an easy book to like, or one that is full of fascinating subject matter, but its intelligence and humanity make it well worth the read.

Speer Morgan is the editor of the Missouri Review. His last novel, "The Freshour Cylinders," won an American Book Award.

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