Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2)
by Rachel Cusk
Friday 21 March 2008
I was only being honest
When author Rachel Cusk wrote A Life's Work, her disarmingly frank account of motherhood, she was shocked by the vicious reaction it provoked from other women. The experience forced her to question herself as a writer and a parent, as she records here
In 2001 we were living in the sticks. It was a beautiful place in the Brendon Hills in Somerset, the rattling ghost of a grand estate, where a miniature ornamental lake still languished in the overgrown pleasure gardens, and the trees in the neglected orchard shed rare red, heart-shaped apples like the apples in a medieval tapestry. It lay remotely, far from town, in a lush green crease of hills that rose steadily up to meet the moor. There was me, my husband, my husband's eight-year-old daughter, and our own two children: a baby who cried passionately each time I moved out of her line of vision, and her sister, older by 15 months, whose abundant hair exactly matched the electrifying palette of autumn in the pleasure gardens that year.
We were renting a house in the grounds of the estate, abandoned by its lineage in the 1940s. It had the portrait of a lady at the top of the stairs with particularly penetrating eyes. I was a little frightened of the house at first: those eyes followed me doggedly, and at night, when the darkness was fathomless, the house embarked on long interior monologues, the water groaning in its old pipes, the floorboards clicking and creaking, the damp walls sometimes emitting a profound shudder or sigh, while outside the wind roared in the oak trees and over the black shapes of hills. There were other houses on the estate besides ours: a cottage, and a flat in the tumbledown stable block opposite our house, and a recherche dwelling called the Elephant House. The people who lived in these places were mostly artisans and artists. They were welcoming and warm, for in this community people came and went frequently. It was easy for us to fit in.
All through a drizzling Exmoor winter I had been writing a book, in a tiny rented place up on the moor where we stayed while we looked for somewhere to live. My husband walked the baby around the lanes in her pram so that I could concentrate. It rained and blew a gale. It would have been more pleasant for them inside: the imposition was so direct that I wrote as quickly as I could. I had written other parts of the book in some uncomfortable places: the cold cobwebbed vestry of my parents'-in-law's local church, to which my mother-in-law had the key; the attic of another, earlier house whose stairs were so narrow for my increasingly pregnant body that it seemed possible I might one day get permanently stuck up there. By the time we moved to the house beside the pleasure gardens, which had a study, I was nearly finished.
Adversity was the hallmark of this book, though I didn't notice it at the time. It was a book - called A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, and published in 2001 - that set out to describe the psychical events of childbirth and early motherhood, and though I very much wanted to write it, it was difficult to do when in the thrall of the events themselves. But that was how it had to be, for I was using myself as the template. I had to live it and to analyse it, both at the same time. I was four or five months pregnant with my second child when I began, and when I reached the end, that child existed, an ardent 10-month-old baby whose power of love has ever since been fused in my mind with the risks and rewards of self-exposure. By the time the book came out, she was one and a half, her sister three: that summer I peacefully harvested the gooseberry bushes at the back of the house, swam in the ornamental lake, shooed out the bats that sometimes flew around the rafters of our room on summer evenings. It was my sincere belief that nobody would read it or care about it, and in all honesty I didn't blame them. I didn't particularly want anyone to read it. It had been important for me to make a record, that was all, of emotional and physical states I was unlikely to experience again.
First of all there was a letter, from a writer friend I had sent a copy to. Be prepared, she said: your book is going to make people very angry.
I read this sitting in the foot-high summer grass that grew through the terrace, above a wild sea of rhododendron bushes. I didn't know what to make of it. Which people? Why would they be angry? What did it have to do with them? A day or two later my sister called. Don't listen to anything they say, she said. It's a very good book. Just ignore them.
These signs and portents soon crystallised into something tangible. I went into town and bought a newspaper, and turning the pages came across the first review of A Life's Work.
"If everyone were to read this book," it said, "the propagation of the human race would virtually cease, which would be a shame." The reviewer was a woman. I had met her, in fact, at some literary festival or other years before. She had seemed harmless enough: I would not have suspected her of such drastic reach, such annihilating middle-class smugness ("which would be a shame"). She went on to accuse me of "confining [my daughter] to the kitchen like an animal". Perhaps strangely, it was the second remark that troubled me more than the possibility that humanity would be extinguished by my hand. How did this person presume to know what I did with my daughter, and where? Where had she come upon such bizarre information? Had someone told her I treated my child like an animal? It took me a long time to realise that her accusation came from the book itself, from a falsification of its personal material. She had searched it, I saw, for "evidence" of my conduct as a mother, and as such she could permit herself to misrepresent me, for she was not judging the book as a book. She was judging it as a social situation.
I returned to the house. When I laid eyes on my children I was instantly overcome by powerful feelings of guilt and shame. There is always shame in the creation of an object for the public gaze. This time, however, I felt it not as a writer but as a mother. I felt that I had committed a violent act. I felt that I had been abusive and negligent. I felt these things not because of anything I had physically or actually done to them ("she confines her daughter to the kitchen like an animal"), but because I had written a book that had malfunctioned, and had allowed our relationship to be publicly impugned. I see now that it was the reviewer who was violent, with her careless, self-congratulatory brutality ("Believe it or not, quite a few people enjoy motherhood," she went on, "but in order to do so, it is important to grow up first"); the reviewer who, while claiming saintly qualities of motherhood, proved with these lines her utter lack of respect and care for children.
Another review, in a different paper: this one long and articulate where the first was brief and blunt.
"What is really startling about A Life's Work is that it is genuinely post-feminist, not in the sense that we do not need feminism any more, but in the sense that it implicitly points to the holes in the familiar feminist discourse. If we do away with the notion that the personal is political, as feminism-lite is wont to do, who gets left holding the baby? This is the contemporary crisis of feminism. An equality founded on what Cusk might call public significance has produced an emphasis on work as the only measure of parity. Motherhood, as it is lived, is still individual, personal, private, and therefore deeply undervalued, sometimes even by those of us (and nowadays that is most of us) who move between the "real" world of work and the shadow world of family life. Between these worlds, Cusk has crafted a work of beauty and wisdom. And belly laughs. A lovely thing."
The sun shines again: the shame goes away. After all, it seems that I have done something good, not bad. I even feel a certain pride, as a mother, that is. My writer-self feels nothing at all. It can't afford to.
"Frankly, you are a self-obsessed bore: the embodiment of the Me! Me! Me! attitude which you so resent in small children. And everything those children say or do is - in your mind - really about you. Sooner or later, you end up in family therapy, because it has never occurred to you that it might be an idea to simply bring children up to be happy, or to consider happiness as an option for yourself ... Talk about navel-gazing."
"Cusk anatomises motherhood as Montaigne anatomised friendship or Robert Burton anatomised melancholy ... Some alchemy of her prose renders this most fascinating and boring of all subjects graceful, eloquent, modest and true."
"I have about as much interest in babies as I have in cavity-wall insulation. You might feel moved to describe the moments of desperation that follow nine hours of incessant wailing.
It might not occur to you that, just because it's a horrific experience doesn't make it interesting. If you had a baby, you did so because you wanted one. If you are suffering sleep deprivation so severe you're hallucinating, that was your choice."
"I laughed out loud, often, in painful recognition."
"Pure misery to read. From the way she writes about her first child, God alone only knows how she allowed herself to bear a second."
On and on it went, back and forth: I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual. One curious article questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences? Why was I not busier, more tired? Another reviewer - a writer! - commanded her readers not to let the book fall into the hands of pregnant women. The telephone rang and rang. I was invited on the Today programme to defend myself. I was invited on the Nicky Campbell programme to defend myself. I was cited everywhere as having said the unsayable: that it is possible for a woman to dislike her children, even to regret having brought them into the world.
As writers go, I have a skin of average thickness. I am pleased by a good review, disappointed by a bad. None of it penetrates far enough to influence the thing I write next. This time, it was different. Again and again people judged the book not as readers but as mothers, and it was judgment of a sanctimoniousness whose like I had never experienced. Yet I had experienced it, in a way: it was part of what I had found intolerable in the public culture of motherhood, the childcare manuals and the toddler groups, the discourse of domestic life, even the politics of birth itself. In motherhood the communal was permitted to prevail over the individual, and the result, to my mind, was a great deal of dishonesty. I had identified this dishonesty in A Life's Work: it seemed to me to be intrinsic to the psychical predicament of the new mother, that in having a child she should re-encounter the childhood mechanism of suppression. She would encounter the possibility of suppressing her true feelings in order to be "good" and to gain approval. My own struggle had been to resist this mechanism. I wanted to - I had to - remain "myself".
It was, perhaps, our isolation - idyllic though it was - that sealed these events in a profound melancholy from which I subsequently found myself unable to escape. The world became a bleaker place. I felt angry and defensive and violated. Despite the number of people who had praised and admired it, and the letters I received to that effect from readers, I regretted, constantly, the fact that I had written A Life's Work. I had been asked many times - am still asked - by journalists barely able to contain their excitement lest I say "yes", whether I regretted having my children. What meaning could such an admission possibly have? My children are living, thinking human beings. It isn't in my power to regret them, for they belong to themselves. It is these kinds of questions that are the true heresy, not my refusal to answer them. But my books are my own, to approve of or regret as I see fit.
These days I have a better understanding of the intolerance to which, for a while, I fell victim. I see that, like all intolerance, it arose from dependence on an ideal. I see that cruelty and rudeness and viciousness are its harbingers, as they have always been. I see that many - most - of my female detractors continue to write routinely in the press about motherhood and issues relating to children. Their interest in these issues has a fixated quality, compared with their worldly male equivalents. I am struck by this distinction, for it is clear that they hunger to express themselves not as women, not as commentators or intellectuals, but as mothers. This hunger evidently goes unsatisfied, and must content itself with scraps from the table of daily news.
I see, too, that there are many women who find motherhood easier than I do, or did. I believe that these things do not lie entirely within our own control. I felt a great need to write, which did not always harmonise with the requirements of my daughters. I was step-parent to a young child with difficulties and vulnerabilities of her own. I have a bad relationship with my own mother and was pitched by motherhood into the recollection of childhood unhappiness and confusion. But this, too, is a common enough reality: why should it be mocked or censured? Penelope Leach gives, I think, an accurate definition of postnatal depression: she says that in postnatal depression the mother believes that there is something faulty or abnormally difficult about her child. This was not my position. My great love for my children and step-child slowly liberated me from much of what I felt about the past. I freed myself - or them - by trying to be honest, by being willing to apologise.
Nevertheless, I remain uneasy in the public places of motherhood - the school gate, the coffee circuit - where the skies can unexpectedly open and judgment rain down on one's head. I find that I like women less than I did, and wonder whether other feminists have been in the same uncomfortable position. It used to be incomprehensible to me that women of the time attacked early feminists so violently, that they loudly objected to their own sex being given the vote. It isn't any more.
Every morning I cycle with my daughters to school: it is a good 10-minute ride, uphill most of the way. We used to go on the pavement, but people protested so now we go on the road. Every single day, some woman with her child strapped into the front seat of her car shakes her head at us. Today, a woman in a Range Rover pulled up at a junction where we had stopped, and rolled down her window. "You're making me very nervous," she said to me loudly. I looked at her, at the child sitting beside her. Did she not care that my daughters could hear what she said? Did they not exist for her, panting and proud of their cycling, stridently moral about pollution? Could she not see that it was she, in her car, that represented the very danger she congratulated herself for pointing out? She was so certain that she was protecting her child better than I was protecting mine. I will never defeat that certainty. All I can do is endeavour not to be crushed by it.
I smiled politely, and we rode on.
Sunday 25 January 2009
Novelist Rachel Cusk manages to steer clear of chichés in this strangely charming account of her family's escape to Italy, says Olivia Laing
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
by Rachel Cusk
A longing for the warm south has a fierce hold over writers from northern climes, from Keats and Byron to DH Lawrence and Jan Morris. But this essentially romantic urge, which is capable of inducing writing of a peculiar beauty and rapture, has inevitably coarsened with the advent of mass tourism. The summer spent en famille in Tuscany, as epitomised by Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and John Mortimer's Summer's Lease, has become a matter of cliché. It smacks of bourgeois escapism and it doesn't, on recent evidence, guarantee good writing.
Praise be, then, for novelist Rachel Cusk, who brings to her three-month sojourn in Italy a characteristic strangeness and charm. Cusk has described herself, repeatedly, as a realist, and both her novels and her memoir of motherhood, A Life's Work, are distinguished by an unflinching anatomisation of the domestic. Yet her writing is the opposite of mundane. It is elevated by a style that depends for its impact on the sustained and extended use of metaphor. By repeated application of this device, she transfigures the drab, daily round of school runs and squabbling toddlers into an exalted, terrible realm.
This artfulness is immediately set to work in The Last Supper. Cusk opens with an account of her determination to leave Bristol. Dissatisfaction has set in; she dislikes the city's slaving history, is bothered by the ranks of drunks who file by her window at night. These are ordinary complaints; the language in which they are phrased is anything but. "The noise they made came from a region that outlay human identity," she writes. "Their long, inchoate monologues, vocalised yet senseless, seemed to name something that afterwards could not be specified, to describe what by daylight could not be described ... it was the sound of lost souls, of primitive creatures bellowing far inside the earth." And if the Georgian terraces of Clifton have temporarily mutated into an outer circle of hell, well, everyone knows where Paradiso is to be found.
The decision is quickly made irrevocable. Cusk's two daughters are taken out of school, the house is sold and the family sets off, laden with toys, tennis rackets and a leather-bound backgammon set, in search of the glorious south.
As the title suggests, Cusk's gaze falls on art and food, and her take on both is unusual and alluring. The notion, largely acquired through the auspices of the River Cafe, that Italy is the land of infinitely varied culinary delights is enjoyably challenged. "We eat sheep's milk cheese and tomatoes. We eat the rough white bread. It is strange to eat the same things over and over again... it is not that we dislike this new, narrow range of satisfactions: on the contrary, the idea of eating at a wider scope begins to seem more and more grotesque." So much for Chocolate Nemesis.
Travelling through Tuscany, the family visits paintings: Piero della Francesca's austere portraits, Raphael's melancholy Madonnas. Cusk's commentary loops between the corporeal and the metaphysical. She is acutely attuned to the human dramas, noticing the "almost baleful" gaze of the infant Christ, the weary posture of an ageing Eve. At the same time, she is perceptive about the intentions of high art, aware that these seemingly accurate forms in fact urge the viewer to "seek a truth that lies beyond human concerns. I keep this with me as the days pass ... the man rising from his tomb, full of terrible knowledge."
Beautiful as her reflections are, it is the human characters that quicken the narrative into life. Cusk seems prone to uncanny, dreamlike encounters, and of these, two stand out: the elderly bachelor who puts the family up for a night in an empty chateau, and the family of women who lure Cusk into a barn filled with elegantly dressed mannequins with bright, human eyes. And then there is Jim. Jim is the book's central and most mysterious figure, a Scottish emigrant who acts as unofficial fixer to the holidaying English in the village in which the Cusks temporarily reside.
The account of their burgeoning friendship is lengthy, troubling and includes some hilariously brutal games of tennis ("We strive and struggle but are as powerless as those victims lashed to the altar in the glaring heat, from whom the satisfaction of supremacy must be exacted"). Jim's love life is discussed, his past relentlessly carved open for inspection. At last, as the family prepares to travel on, Jim writes "a kind of love letter, except that the love is mostly too damaged to be recognised". It is uncomfortable to read this sequence, which uses the event of the letter to launch a disquisition about knowledge and possession that seems, in the context, cruelly abstract.
But Cusk's capacity for lacerating observation does not exclude herself. As she proved in A Life's Work, she has the ability to examine microscopically her own behaviour as a mother without giving in to the consolations of self-pity. Her children come into sharpest focus at the book's end, but it is Cusk herself who is exposed: "I am ashamed. I try to stop shouting but I can't. I can't." There are those who will condemn Cusk for such episodes, but her honesty should be consoling.
In an essay on her 2005 novel, In the Fold, critic John Mullan noted that the narrator's voice relied on "a habit of similes", the favourite form of which begins "as though". It appears that the tic has stuck, for the device is likewise to be found on almost every page of The Last Supper. The effect, albeit perhaps less consciously wielded than Mullan suggests, remains transfigurative. Everything becomes something else: an art gallery is transformed into heaven, a sunbathing couple into refugees from Fitzgerald. As such, it would be impossible to travel in search of Cusk's Italy, for her Florence is almost entirely a state of mind. But that is not to underestimate the delights of visiting this fine, exultant book.
August 10, 2012
On Marriage and Separation
By Rachel Cusk
146 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
In 1999, the British novelist Rachel Cusk gave birth to a daughter and then, 15 months later, to a second one. Like women writers all over the planet, she realized motherhood was material. So she wrote a book, “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother,” which came out in Britain in 2001, when her younger daughter was a year old.
The book was heavily promoted in England as “brutally honest,” which meant many women really hated it. “On and on it went, back and forth,” Cusk wrote later in a Guardian article about the book’s reception. “I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual.”
But literary reviewers also found much to love in her pages. “Compulsive as a thriller,” one wrote. “A powerful, often funny account of pregnancy, childbirth and mothering that doesn’t gloss over the pain, mystery and confusion — but does celebrate the wonder,” another said. The book sold well.
So it stands to reason that on getting divorced from her daughters’ father, Cusk should write another memoir. “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation” is the bookend to “A Life’s Work.” Good for her. If motherhood can be material, why not this?
Cusk is a novelist of great renown in Britain, a winner of the Whitbread First Novel award and a finalist for other prestigious prizes. Yet there is considerable difference between her fiction and nonfiction. Simply put, the fiction is better. It has a stirring energy. Her descriptions are more vivid, the plots have somewhere to go.
When writing about her own life, Cusk often sounds depressed, and appears not so much selfish as self-involved. Maybe it’s an obvious point to make about a 45-year-old serial memoirist, but she finds herself disproportionately fascinating.
“The day my husband moved his possessions out of our house,” she writes, “I had toothache.”
Her writing can be funny — wry and dry as opposed to laugh-out-loud — and when her observations hit their target, the talent evident in her fiction shines through. But her intellectualism (she was educated at Oxford) often comes across as pretension. And there’s plenty of that in “Aftermath.” Pages of stories of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Oedipus and Antigone clog up her stream of consciousness.
Most striking about the discrepancy between her fiction and nonfiction is that her made-up characters seem far more real than her real ones. Perhaps this is because of constraints imposed by Britain’s strict libel and invasion of privacy laws. (An early British print run of Cusk’s second memoir, “The Last Supper,” about a family sojourn in Italy, had to be pulped after some people who didn’t appreciate how they were depicted in the book sued.)
Notably absent from “A Life’s Work” was the character of the children’s father. There was hardly any “we” in that book. Whatever the reason, her husband’s previous literary absence makes Cusk’s divorce a credible sequel.
In “Aftermath,” Cusk goes easy on the details of the actual separation. “My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously,” she confides. But she doesn’t say why. “This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories.”
The lack of detail is the book’s most glaring omission. How can you write a memoir about divorce without saying what caused it? Without owning up to or trying to come to terms with one’s role in it? “Monstrously” is a powerful word. Cusk may hate stories, but inevitably her readers will want to know: What’s the story?
Instead of telling us, she concentrates on her children. And her obvious love of them (her writing here is eloquent and sad, but also touching) makes the book’s tone a bit less bleak. “Sometimes, in the bath, the children cry,” she writes. “Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine — something, anyway, dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath.”
Yet as a whole this book doesn’t work. Cusk’s biggest problem is her main character. Her self-absorption is still acute. The way she analyzes her every mood does not make her likable. Nor does it make for an interesting narrative. Frankly, the book is often tedious. Take, for example, her description of a meeting with a new love interest, post-split:
“Z comes to see me. We take a walk in the countryside. . . . As we walk we talk. In our conversation I keep missing my footing. It is as though I’m expecting there to be a step down and there isn’t one. I’m used to talking to someone else. Z walks quickly; I have to run to keep up.”
It’s not hard to imagine her lying on a shrink’s couch somewhere, talking through her thoughts, then going home and writing them down. And toward the end of the book we realize this is indeed what she has done, when we are introduced to a man called Y. Y, it turns out, is the psychoanalyst helping her through this period:
“I say to Y, marriage is a mode of manifestation. It absorbs disorder and manifests it as order. It takes different things and turns them into one thing. It receives chaos, diversity, confusion, and it turns them into form.
“Y strokes his knuckles.”
Whatever Cusk’s level of psychic pain, it’s her daughters’ trials that give this book its few vibrant passages. As babies in “A Life’s Work,” they of course couldn’t do much — as humans or as characters. They ate, they cried (a lot), they slept (a little). But in “Aftermath” they have their own dramas, and Cusk depicts those with skill.
“My daughter’s friend D has a birthday party. S and P, of course, are there. But when I turn up at the appointed time to collect her, it becomes clear that my daughter is the only one being sent home. S and P are staying the night at D’s house: the three of them are discussing the film that has been rented for their entertainment, and that will be put on as soon as my daughter leaves.
“On the way home my daughter is rigid, white, silent, but eventually she can bear it no longer and I pull the car over while she sobs against my shoulder.”
Cusk is made so angry by this social injustice — “with D and the parents of D, with myself, with the world for its cruelty” — that she suggests going back so she can talk to D’s parents.
“Don’t, my daughter says, half-smiling though her face is still wet.”
By the time Cusk gets to Volume 4 of her memoirs, her daughters will have reached adolescence. Let’s hope she’ll know enough to give them the spotlight.
Emma Gilbey Keller is a contributor to the American edition of The Guardian. Her latest book is “The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went From Career to Family and Back Again.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Not long ago, in an online blog of the , a wife made a confession. A high-earning editor and the breadwinner in her family, she admitted that she resents her husband for being supportive and domestically hands-on. Far from being grateful that he makes her job and family life possible by taking on the role of primary caregiver to their son, she feels burdened and jealous. While some of her objections are fair - supporting a household is scary, as men have long known - others, she acknowledged, aren't.
Her piece is a reminder that women, like men, can be emotionally retrograde even as they are progressive and ambitious; it's not always men who have trouble adapting to female achievement and female earning.
The same dynamic is at work in "Aftermath," Rachel Cusk's bleak and rather bravely unsympathetic memoir of marital dissolution. Cusk, a British novelist, sketches a scenario whereby she maneuvered her husband into the role of househusband, then scorned him for occupying it. She is not sure whom to blame for this radical inconsistency: her feminism, her parents, her schooling, or simply whatever was in the water when she was growing up.
At any rate, having been raised in a culture that privileged "male values" like striving and winning, she says that upon having children she could not embrace the conventional duties of mother. So she "conscripted" her husband into doing them; he quit his law job, and she came to hate his "unwaged domesticity." During one post-separation encounter, it comes as a surprise to her - but not to the reader - that he in turn has come to hate her.
Reading, it's hard not to despair at the nature of relations between the sexes: Dear God, you think, will wives always find a way to be angry at husbands? Will things never get better? Have things actually gotten worse? Writers are notoriously difficult people to live with; ideologues, one reflects, more so.
As the book proceeds, however, Cusk's dissatisfaction becomes harder to pinpoint even as it begins to seem more reasonable. Her essay is fragmentary and facts hard to come by, probably a deliberate effort to replicate her unmoored mental state. Even so, it emerges that while supporting the household, she was able to knock off early enough to fetch her two daughters from school, suggesting that she was in truth a pretty involved parent. The reader begins to suspect that what she resented was not the domestication of her husband, but - more understandably - the fact that she was doing two jobs, parenting and earning, while he was doing one.
Or was he? We learn that they had child care, and the reader has new questions: If they had a nanny, why did her husband have to quit? Also: She supported this whole shebang on a writer's earnings? For whom did she write, and how much did they pay per word?
At a certain point, it helps to accept that Cusk's marriage did founder, as marriages have done before and will always do, for a tangled mess of reasons. Accepting this, the book becomes more compelling, as a restlessly erudite portrait of post-marital strife. The book's satisfactions lie in its cold-eyed probing of the "aftermath," which, as she tells us, is a second sowing after the initial harvest. And in its vivid use of image and metaphor: Inviting a potential suitor to her home for lunch, she likens herself to a "small country advertising itself for invasion."
Like , Cusk is a digressive but strategic essayist, and the idea she is playing with is that an individual life, much like human civilization, is a series of rises and falls. Civilization builds itself up, as does marriage; things hum along for a time; then the edifice, more fragile than we imagined, crumbles, becomes a seething and formless mess.
In this period in her own life, Cusk sees herself as living in an interstitial era, much like England in the Dark Ages, after the fell but before medievalism began to cohere: an England of ruins and "untenanted wastes." Elsewhere she evokes the ancient Greeks, with their epic familial collapses. Meditating on Oedipus and Jocasta, she muses that Creon had the unenviable task of restoring order to that exploded world, and understands why it's hard to exert authority with her own daughters, living in a "post-familial" state.
Like the Frankenstein monster, Cusk is on the outside of domestic life, looking in - peering at families in church, trying to remember what a family dinner felt like, feeling an odd mixture of liberation and stigma.
And stigmatized she must have been; it is among the ironies of our time that divorce is least fashionable among the very people you might think would be most OK with it - the liberal, the upper-income, the well-educated, the open-minded. "I'm not equal any more with the people I know," she reflects.
Her book is affecting in its evocation of chaos and muddling: She takes in a boarder, inevitably named Rupert, who turns out, inevitably, to be unhinged. Are men predators or protectors? She cannot remember. She talks about how it feels, anguishing over your wounded children, even as it is you who have wounded them.
She intellectualizes, yes, but this book is a solace to anybody who has dwelt in post-familial wastes. As she points out, every civilization has in it the seeds of its own destruction, but wastelands have their own beauty, their own potential for rejuvenation.
As for whether feminism has wrought new discontents: Of course it has, but it has also brought new riches, new risks, new joys. Maybe she carried the discontents farther than she needed to; it's hard to tell. This, she argues, is the central human tragedy: Like Oedipus, who did not realize he was killing his father and marrying his mother, "we lack knowledge of the very things that drive us to our fate."
"Why had I destroyed my home?" she asks. That she does not answer, not clearly, is because there is not a ready reply; there rarely is.
Liza Mundy is a Washington Post reporter, fellow at the and the author of "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family."
The Washington Post
Early in her memoir “Aftermath,” Rachel Cusk describes a milestone in the life of anyone who has ever divorced: the first holiday apart.
She and her two daughters “go to a Christmas carol service and I watch the other families. I watch mother and father and children. And I see it so clearly, as though I were looking in at them through a brightly lit window from the darkness outside; see the story in which they play their roles, their parts, with the whole world as a backdrop. We’re not part of that story any more, my children and I. We belong more to the world, in all its risky disorder, its fragmentation, its freedom.”
Cusk is a great observer of the roles people — and especially women — play, studying not only the garbs they put on for tradition and ideology, but also how this action affects their understanding of themselves. The author of seven novels, she is best known for her 2001 memoir, “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother,” in which she chronicled the difficulty she had maintaining her identity amid the trappings of motherhood. In that work, the problem was one of addition. Her new role as a mother went head to head with what felt like another, truer self. “I felt inhabited by a second self, a twin whose jest it was — in the way of twins — to appear to be me while doing things that were alien to my own character.”
In “Aftermath,” Cusk explores a similar dilemma through subtraction. Like motherhood, she observes, marriage comes with significant cultural acceptance. You get to sit in the pew, so to speak. But what happens when a marriage collapses? When you are no longer husband and wife, but just yourself, just a woman?
For starters, you lose weight. Or at least Cusk did. Yet like much in this smart book, that image is only a metaphor for something larger. “I can’t eat, and soon my clothes are too big for me, all gaping sleeves and sagging waistbands.” The old roles, old costumes no longer fit, lie tangled in a messy heap.
From this withered position, Cusk struggles early in the book to understand what went wrong. She had, after all, made efforts in her marriage to maintain her own identity, writing full-time while her husband watched their children. Yet, in reality, she writes, “I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband — meaning well — only did one.” When her soon-to-be-ex assumes they will share custody of the children equally, the breadwinner balks. “They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.”
Cusk is a controversial writer in England, where she resides, and these admissions have led to charges of hypocrisy, but no one is more aware of her contradictions than she. After her lawyer implies she will have to support her husband, she writes: “But he’s a qualified lawyer, I said. And I’m just a writer. What I meant was, he’s a man. And I’m just a woman.”
It turns out that no matter how you do the math, being “just a woman” is a complicated equation. The problem is partly practical: How do you reconcile your ideals with the messiness of everyday life? But Cusk also hints at an existential condition, wherein women have become so consumed by playing various roles that they cannot recognize what they truly feel. Reflecting on her marriage, she wonders, “Why couldn’t the outside and the inside be the same?”
As if to reinforce the slippery nature of women’s identity, Cusk often talks around the subject, particularly as the book progresses. It is a work replete with metaphors, literary allusions and even some fiction. This remove may alienate readers wanting more personal detail, and Cusk is occasionally too cautious. For instance, she suggests that her marriage collapsed partly because of infidelity but withholds any particulars — an unfortunate omission, as a portrait of someone doing something just for him- or herself could be illuminating here.
Nevertheless, the book is engaging throughout. The writing is full of feeling, and even the stylistic oddities contribute to a sense of wandering and solitude, which, speaking from my own experience, feels entirely appropriate. For unlike marriage and motherhood, divorce has few playbooks. “We are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary,” Cusk writes of herself and her daughters. “I see that we have lost a degree of protection, of certainty.”
And yet, while frightening, abandoning certain scripts can bring an openness that Cusk, for one, wouldn’t trade for anything. Having shed her old roles, she has learned a lesson about the importance of writing one’s own story, however complicated that may be.
Ashley Nelson has written on women, politics and culture for the Guardian, the Nation, Salon and other publications.