Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation

Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber, 160pp, £12.99

In her memoir A Life's Work (2001), Rachel Cusk described the experience of becoming a mother in terms that seemed often desolate and dismaying. It was a disturbing volume and it made some of its readers not just uncomfortable but angry.

A decade later, Cusk has written another account of a transitional moment in family life. This time, the transition she anatomises is not that from romance to parenthood but from marriage to what lies beyond. The "aftermath" of the title is that of the end of her ten-year relationship.

“My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously," Cusk writes. "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. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth."

The resonances of this are deafening. For a start, it is impossible to suppress the thought that if her husband thought she'd treated him monstrously by ending their marriage, his feelings are unlikely to be soothed by her publication of their private pain.

And then, what is this, if not a story? Cusk explains: "When I write a novel wrong, eventually it breaks down and . . . won't be written any more, and I have to go back and look for the flaws in its design. The problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth . . . For me, life's difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two."

So this is partly an exercise in unpicking both aftermath and prelude: looking for the flaws in the old narrative and trying to discern the new pattern that might emerge from its disconnected fragments.

In A Life's Work, Cusk describes the "feudal relation" that arises between a parent who goes out to work and a parent who stays at home
to look after children. She returns to this theme in Aftermath.

Ten years ago, when her first child was born, the demolition of the polarised male/female parental roles and their replacement with two hybrids seemed an elegant solution to an intractable conundrum. Cusk's husband would give up his law job and she, in return, would relinquish "the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children".

But when her estranged husband proposed an equally elegant solution to the splitting of their marriage - he wanted half of everything, including the children - she was startled by the "primitive . . . almost barbaric maternalism" of her response.

They're my children, I said. They belong to me. Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor.

“What is a feminist, anyway?" Cusk wonders, concluding that what she lived as feminism were the "male" values - of individualism and personal and financial independence - that her parents had well-meaningly bequeathed to her, but which, after becoming a mother, she found so alienating that she began to feel that she was "not a feminist [but] a self-hating transvestite".

“In Greek drama," Cusk writes, "to traduce biological human roles is to court the change that is death, the death that is change." It is in terms of Greek tragedy - the shocking simplicity of elemental emotion - that she finds a frame for her own catastrophe. Reading the Oresteia, she finds Clytemnestra "seeking a new form, a new configuration of female and male . . . She wants the peace of equality but to get it she will have to use violence. To reach aftermath, first there has to be the event itself."

In the Oresteia, the Furies tasked with keeping the murdered Clytemnestra's righteous anger alive become drowsy and forget to articulate her grievances. "And I, too, cannot remember what drove me to destroy the life I had," Cusk writes. This forgetfulness, one may think, is hard on her daughters, one of whom remarks with terrible simplicity, "I have two homes, and I have no home."

In recording this - in recording any of it - Cusk lays herself open to the accusations of solipsism and worse that are often made against memoirs, particularly accounts by women of their experience as mothers and wives. "For you," says Cusk's new love, Z, "the saying is a kind of working out, like doing a sum on a bit of paper. You can't always expect people to grasp it."

The same is true of her writing. This is an intensely writerly book - highly wrought, allusive - in which everything, from a badly made cake to a bunch of flowers, represents something other than itself. Readers who admire the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny will find precision, beauty and a complicated truth in Cusk's narrative. The censorious will enjoy it, too, for different reasons.

Jane Shilling's "The Stranger in the Mirror: a Memoir of Middle Age" is published in paperback by Vintage (£8.99)

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar