The Acid Tongue
Last Supper for Rachel Cusk
Selected By Cyril Wong
The Last Supper by Rachel Cusk takes a sustained beating at the delicately-nasty hands of Camilla Long in a review in the Sunday Times of 8 Feb 2009. The reviewer suggests right off that Cusk, who sold her house to travel to Tuscany with her family and wrote about her experiences, should not even have bothered:
Disenchanted with the grime and slave-trading past of Bristol, the novelist Rachel Cusk decides to sell her house and seek new horizons with a three-month holiday in Tuscany… unfortunately, she also takes her notebook… her account of those three months becomes an agonising, pretentious stream of cultural whimsy and personal anecdote. Inspired by DH Lawrence… the book is sadly less Sea and Sardinia, more "what I did on my summer holidays, and why don't you look at the photos, too". Beyond a decision not to return to Bristol, there's seemingly little or no point to the exercise.
The book, Long claims, is "neither a travelogue nor a guide to Tuscan culture" and what Cusk lacks in gripping and concrete material, she makes up for "in swooping prose" (as in superficially elegant and over-generalised, of course):
Her mother-in-law, padding around in a dressing gown, is a "part-time mythical functionary"; a rubbish-strewn Neapolitan beach is "like a violated woman who refuses to give up her secret"… Arriving at their destination, the family is served "esoteric jams" (me neither); it is no time at all before an espresso is described as a "libation". She likens a sweaty tennis court to "the vast raised altars of the Aztecs", and the hostess, who comes out to play, to "the goddess, the chief, come to the altar to accept her sacrifices, her offerings". But best, really, has to be the risotto. In a long and verbose cul-de-sac about Italian cooking and the British interest in it, Cusk describes the act of making the dish as "the vehicle by which our childhood fears about food can be expressed".
Cusk's "skin-prickling" (to quote Long later in the review) descriptions quoted above are a hoot. Such writings by Cusk actually recall similarly laugh-out-loud passages from the novels of Amy Tan, or those by our home-grown self-Orientalising author with the same surname, Hwee Hwee Tan. Fortunately for us, Long is not done with Cusk's descriptive prose yet, which, the former insists, has its moments:
QLRS Vol. 8 No. 2 Apr 2009
Sure, it's not all bad…Brighton, in the dawn, is "a bright spill of gems over the hill"; Jim, a Scot living in Arezzo, has a Dundee accent that sits "on his tongue, as stubborn as a stain". Resting on a beach, she delivers a deliciously creepy description of an awkward honeymooning couple clearly in the throes of an On Chesil Beach situation. But these are small pickings indeed in the great, rolling gush of it all.