In the Fold, Rachel Cusk’s odd and unsettling new novel, is never quite what you think it is. Or rather, it doesn’t become what you think it will, flirting with sturdy genres—haunted house, undergraduate nostalgia, comedy of manners—before blithely abandoning them, to thrilling effect. The epigraph of this Booker long-listee comes from The Cherry Orchard, and Cusk’s m.o. is often Chekhovian, but she also takes perverse pleasure in not abiding by his old saw about the first-act firearm. Except, of course, the crossbow incident.
Cusk lays her first scene in Egypt—not the country, but the self-consciously antiquated family seat of the Hansburys, swarming with enough riddles to equip a team of sphinxes. Michael, Fold‘s wry-eyed, delicately sad narrator, attends a party there with college pal Adam Hansbury, and gets a weekend of indelible impressions. A whole life goes by before Adam invites him back. Toting his baby son, Michael’s glad for a respite from his moody, energy-sapping wife, Rebecca, and their crumbling domestic situation. (Literally so: Their stone balcony crashes to the ground, missing him by a few feet.)
Page by page, the pleasure is in the way Michael registers tiny shifts in behavior and emotion, so precisely that they gleam like ancient coins after a chemical wash. Cusk’s droll touch relieves the tension: “For as long as I had known her, Rebecca had claimed to be an artist while never to my knowledge producing an item made by her own hand. A few times she got close to attempting it, a proximity that expressed itself in the immediate onset of illness and depression, accompanied by unexplained pains down the left side of her rib cage.” Though Michael narrates, In the Fold‘s shucking of formal straitjackets mimics Rebecca’s neurotic flightiness. She’s etched with acid, but her portrait is not free of our sympathies.