In brief: A woman goes to Athens to teach a writing course – this is what others tell her during her time there.
The good: I enjoyed the style of writing, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the life stories people tell our narrator.
The not-so-good: We learn almost nothing about the narrator.
Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.
Setting: Athens, Greece
My rating: 8 out of 10
Outline is a small book and a quick read, but one that will remain with you long after the story is finished. I think the title is apt for this story, as from its first person narrator we learn very little about her – it’s a rough outline, a basic sketch. Her name is only mentioned once and we know very few details about her – she needs to refinance her mortgage, she has children, she’s a writer. This book is about the conversations she has with others and the focus is on the other person and their lives. It’s a very clever book, taking the focus away from the person who is telling the story. It’s also very engaging, learning about these fictional strangers and what makes them tick. (It’s also proof that people love to talk about themselves – a lot).
The book starts as the narrator is going to the airport. She’s had a brief conversation with a very rich man but now she gets into a conversation with the man next to her on the plane to Athens. His story is one that continues throughout the book as they spend time together in Athens – she thinks that he’s out for a (fourth) wife in her, but I felt that he was simply sad, lonely and looking for company. We learn about his failed marriages, business dealings and children. The narrator also interacts with other writers and friends while in Athens – there’s the author that made it big and now thinks she’s a literary star on the feminist ideal, the man who wrote one book and is now satisfied teaching, a poet with a stalker that makes faces at her and the old friend, not sure if her relationship is the real deal. Then there’s the interactions between the narrator and the students in her class, which vary from the wildly enthusiastic youth to the woman who complains that the class is not what she thought. In the classes, a big deal is made as to whether the windows and door should be open or closed – I thought that this was linked to how much the students divulge during class. Some are open, some are not. Some speak only about superficial things, others reveal their deepest thoughts.
Outline is a perplexing book. It’s definitely original and I really did enjoy it. I felt that maybe I shouldn’t though – perhaps because it’s different, perhaps because it doesn’t ‘fulfil’ the ‘requirements’ of a novel – developed character, developed plot. I also felt that perhaps I shouldn’t enjoy something where I learned so little about the person telling the story, as if it was a fault of my own that I didn’t encourage the narrator to speak more about herself. But I did admire the narrator for keeping her business close to her chest and being able to draw out the people she interacts with to tell their stories, often heavy in detail with regard to their personal lives. I kind of think I should read it again, to see the symbolism and imagery that I’m sure I missed (and everyone else saw) but I think that would spoil the simple pleasure I got from learning the deep, dark secrets of strangers!