The Country Life

After eight days of marriage, Stella Benson leaves her husband, quits her job as a solicitor, cuts off her ties with her parents, and finds herself in the village of Hilltop to care for Martin, a seventeen-year-old paraplegic. Author Rachel Cusk writes the early pages of The Country Life in a formal, almost archaic style to emphasize her protagonist’s emotional isolation. The style also recalls two Victorian novels: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, both presenting impressionable young governesses facing emotional confusion in remote settings.

While Stella, like James’s heroine, experiences considerable unrelieved sexual tension, she is not an innocent like Jane Eyre. A bundle of neuroses, she blunders constantly, from an almost disastrous attempt to drive a car for the first time to a clumsy date with an unsophisticated but passionate estate manager. Stella accidentally tortures herself with everything from severe sunburn to almost drowning.

Almost everyone Stella encounters is somewhat grotesque with the characters and circumstances gradually recalling Stella Gibbons’ satirical Cold Comfort Farm (1932). Pamela Madden, Stella’s employer, is always shifting between friendliness and hostility. Pamela’s husband, Piers, may be slightly insane. Their handsome son, Toby, impregnated Stella’s predecessor. Only the wheelchair-bound Martin, the most intelligent and sympathetic character, seems normal.

One of Cusk’s most effective ironies is Stella’s seeing everyone else as strange when she is more excessive in her behavior than anyone. Though often amusing, The Country Life is finally a bit unfocused and strains too hard for its comic effects.