One wet morning in Arlington Park, Juliet Randall, the heroine of Rachel Cusk's latest novel, wakes up with a bug. She "parted her hair and there it was: a thing like a cockroach, three inches long and two across, embedded in her scalp, waving its legs triumphantly . . . Oh, how it itched! How revolting it was, how unbearably revolting! Was there no way of getting it out?" It all turns out to be a dream, of course. But as the shades of Kafka melt away, Juliet begins to remember the other nightmare: last night's dreadful dinner party, the school run, the way her husband looks with his clothes off, and the fact that her four-year-old son seems to hate her.
Queasily dramatic, Arlington Park is Cusk's sixth novel, and a masterly piece of writing. The plot, such as it is, is simple. It follows a day in the life of six women in an English nowheresville. "It was a mysterious place, Arlington Park: it was a suburb, a sort of enormous village really, yet even here the force of life came up strong, dealing out its hard facts, its irrepressible, universal dimensions . . . It was all so vigorous and uncrushable, the getting and having . . . It was civilisation, and yet to Juliet it seemed uncivilised to the core."
The focus is on their domestic duties and pleasures - a coffee morning, a trip to the mall, shopping at the butchers, the death of a grandmother, a plan for a dinner party. Cusk also looks at the women's feelings towards each other, their children and their husbands. The once brilliant Juliet wonders why she has ended up trailing her spouse as he garners academic plaudits, while she is "full of the deposits of wasted days". Her friend Solly goes through her lodger's possessions in an attempt to glean some glamour from the contents of another woman's underwear drawers. Maisie spends all day waiting for her children to come home from school, then, when they do, starts hurling lunch boxes at the walls. Meanwhile, Cusk's narrator surveys the "fast food restaurants and pubs with Union Jacks in the window" that provide a sort of unrelenting backdrop to the whole.
In my experience, Cusk is probably the contemporary novelist most likely to elicit a grimace. And all the usual things that bother her readers are in full force here: the cold-war-style vision of domestic life, the heavy symbolism, the incredibly long sentences. Juliet watches a friend's husband, with "folds of pink skin at the back of his neck . . . like a big sleek seal sitting barking on its rock", while she feeds "on the scraps of the men's conversations" that fall to her. A toddler attacks a white sofa with a felt- tipped pen, producing a red stain that spreads, like a doom-laden portent, over the soft furnish-ings. A young mother reflects on the state of her marriage "in a malevolent way . . . it was part of a private strategy with which she hoped to meet the bleak necessity, the onerous task, of implanting him with the uncomfortable knowledge that she could not endure the life they were making for themselves".
But it is these aspects that make Cusk so gripping. She, like so many of her female characters, likes to make scenes. She writes with a sort of dramatic aggression, "as if a dark audience had assembled outside", and the structure of Arlington Park, with its Bleak House-style set pieces, is particularly striking. And like her Dickensian forebear, this is an angry, state-of-the-nation book, an elegy to metropolitan decline.
In fact, the things that irritate people about Cusk's novels are also their strengths. She is a powerful writer, entertaining and unsettling by turns. Reading about the lives of her characters is rather like watching a louse wander through somebody's hairline - you feel thoroughly grip ped, a bit nasty, and start to worry about whether it might also be happening to you.
Arlington Park is a tour de force and confirms Cusk as one of the best of her generation.
Sophie Ratcliffe is a British Academy research fellow at Keble College, Oxford