I am a big fan of Rachel Cusk.
She's better known as a novelist (although she's somewhat notorious for her earlier memoir on parenting, titled A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother), but I've never read any of her novels. I really, really enjoyed A Life's Work, largely, I'll admit, for its contrarian viewpoint, so when I heard her new book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was coming out, I was very excited to read it.* I was pumped when it finally came in for me at the library, and as it clocks in at a mere 146 pages, I thought I'd be able to fly through it. This was not the case.
The first time I started it, for some reason, I had a very hard time keeping track of what she was saying in the first chapter. The second time I started it, I was in Door County enjoying a very nice mini-vacation with my family and my brother's family, and it just wasn't the right atmosphere in which to read this book. The third time I started it, I found it really interesting, and re-read the first chapter so I made sure to get it all. And the fourth time I started it (starting with the second chapter), I couldn't put it down, and I made CRjr look at his own books for a while in the afternoon so I could keep reading it ("Mom's reading her book, why don't you just look at the pictures in your animal book? Please?" Child neglect, thy name is CR.)
There's no way for this not to be a sad memoir. It is about the breaking up of a marriage, with all that entails: fights and disagreements and the destruction of shared history with one's ex; worries about the children and how they are taking the new living situations; the messiness of trying to move forward with new and different relationships. It is, unfortunately, not a great book. (And here's two reviews explaining why it is not, better than I ever could.)
But to me Rachel Cusk is never strongest in the aggregate. I love her for the brief shining moments of insight, the lines she gets totally right. These are a few of them:
"To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values...I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion. I had gone away--I couldn't be reached on the usual number. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine. It was generic too: like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn't belong anywhere." (p. 19.) This is in the opening chapter on the early days of marriage and parenthood and the sorting out of roles, with a discussion of her childhood adoption of her father's ways and more "male" values of seeking individual success and financial security.
"Pain is strong and huge and relentless, and 'normality'--that was the word he used, wasn't it?--normality is the fine balance life achieves in the absence of disruption, is the blank register of events and their aftermath, slowly re-stitching and reparing itself after a pebble has been thrown in. Normality is capable of resisting nothing and can outlive almost anything." (p. 31.) This is perhaps the clearest description of pain and the absence of pain that I've ever read.
"Later, at the train station before she leaves, my sister says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.
I don't believe that, I say." (p. 72.) I don't know how I feel about this. I'd like to discuss it in a book group or something, actually.
So there you have it. A disjointed review of a book I found to be somewhat disjointed. It may have been hard to understand in bits; it may not have divulged as much actual information about why a marriage ends as I might have wished; and at the end of the day Cusk is not the sort of author I wish I could call up and ask some questions. But I'm still not sorry I read it. Not at all.
*Although I was not happy to hear she was having marital troubles. No fun for spouses, and definitely no fun for the kids.