Elevate Difference

The Bradshaw Variations

In earlier times, a set of variations on a theme in classic art music was a chance for a composer to play around with a melody, try it on in various guises, and allow the audience to hear possibilities. Each variation was minute, an aural petit four to be savored briefly while one contemplated on the sweet yet temporal nature of life. Cusk’s novel The Bradshaw Variations is indeed a set of variations, each chapter holding their own like variations on the theme, offering a brief but blinding insight into life.

Questions of meaning within family, vocation, and sexuality arise as Cusk introduces her reader to the lives of Thomas Bradshaw, his wife Tonie, his daughter Alex, and his two brothers and their families. Thomas, the main character through which most of the action is understood, is taking piano lessons during his interim as a stay-at-home dad. His experiences practicing and learning works by Beethoven and Bach ground the entire novel in a specifically artistic linguistic; Cusk deftly uses musical metaphors throughout the work to create a story that is aural as well as visual and emotional, without succumbing to cliché or cheesy, florid prose.

Thomas, formerly a professional who commuted to work in London like so many other suited desk jockeys, has left his job to stay at home, while his wife Tonie has accepted a position as head of department at a university. Their nontraditional role-switching carries with it consequences for how their family members react and how they negotiate disapproval. Cusk weaves a believable narrative of these very human actors, creating a counterpoint of voices. Both Thomas and Tonie’s parents see the occupational switch as irresponsible and somehow wrong, but are unable to voice the exact nature of their disapproval; furthermore, Thomas feels as if he is in some tired and ambiguous rivalry with both of his brothers, whose temperaments are like night and day. Regardless of the parental disapproval, Thomas finds fulfillment in his days at home, looking after Alexa, playing the piano, and cooking meals. Questions of masculinity are never approached; however, Tonie begins to recognize her own yearning sexuality, and the effects of marriage, age, and work on her own fulfillment. A Freudian theme permeates the novel, apparent in both Thomas’s relationship with his daughter and Tonie’s sense of abandonment, and with Tonie’s own relationship with her father, as viewed through her mother’s eyes. This novel questions what it means to be a family, laying bare the hearts of one in particular and allowing the reader to see their struggles and their moments of connection.

Cusk’s tactile engagement with the characters and their surroundings, coupled with her brilliant use of musical vernacular, create a community of very human characters that I could relate to, over boundaries of class, country, and gender. I read this novel twice, during my morning commutes to work and found myself captivated despite the rush hour bustle.

Written by: Cristin Colvin, August 4th 2010