The Rachel Cusk of A Life’s Work, the incisive if brittle opponent of the mommy police, who knew without question that children belong to themselves, isn’t running the show in Aftermath. In her Guardian interview, Cusk says she wanted to describe her “primitive and fairly ferocious feelings” about her children, which the separation brought out, and which contradicted her own feminist politics. She succeeds, I think, in showing us her own dread that her daughters have been damaged. But the more layered emotions and possibilities go unexplored. Why precisely does Cusk think she shouldn’t share custody with her husband—after all, wasn’t he their primary caretaker? What arrangement have the ex-couple actually made? I’m not sure.
In one memorable scene, Cusk and her children visit a maker of fanciful hats and headdresses. One of her daughters tries on a mask of a stag and asks Cusk to buy it for her, please please. Cusk gropes for a sense of her own authority and decides to say no merely to establish it. Instead, her daughter withdraws the question, telling her mother not to worry, she’s changed her mind. To me, this suggests a daughter’s effort to compensate for her mother’s weakness, to self-abnegate rather than tax a parent’s strength. I would love to read Cusk on that possibility. But she lets it go, unexplored. Perhaps she feels uncomfortable probing her daughter’s psyche, but then why is she tantalizing us by starting to?
Instead of showing us the effect of divorce on her real daughters, Cusk inserts into her narrative extended interpretations of Greek tragedy. It’s meant to be insight by analogy. In Cusk’s reading of the Oresteia, Clytemnestra is the original working mother; she has to run the kingdom while Agamemnon fights the Trojan War, as she single-parents her son Orestes and her daughter Electra. The family’s biggest problem, of course, is that Agamemnon has sacrificed his older daughter Iphigenia to the gods, to win the fair winds the Greeks needed to sail for Troy.
From Clytemnestra’s rage over her husband’s terrible act, which leads her to murder him upon his return from Troy, Cusk extrapolates this question: “Do all women have a special capacity to hate their husbands, all husbands the capacity to hate their wives with a hatred that is somewhere fused with the very origins of life?” Maybe, I guess, but wouldn’t it be more fruitful to explore the particulars of her own marriage rather than to make grim pronouncements about everyone else’s? When she does, her writing can be brutally beautiful: “For months,” she writes, “black poisonous hatred has flowed from the fatal wound to our marriage, flowed through every source and outlet, soaked into everything, coated the children like the downy heads of coastal birds are coated in tar.”
But on the very next page, she goes too far again. Clytemnestra hates and kills Agamemnon, we are told, because he used their child to escape from her. “She doesn’t want a doll after all—she wants a man, a man to love her and desire her.” And this means, somehow, that Iphigenia “is perhaps the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all marriages, the death on which the whole enterprise is built.”
Maybe such an overwrought indictment of marriage is plausible, or even necessary, for Cusk in the throes of her gory divorce. But I wonder if she’ll wake up in a few years and read these pages as artifact rather than felt truth. I also wonder if being in the throes of a breakup just tends to undo good writers—it’s happened before.
In any case, my favorite thing about Aftermath is that it ends with a chapter of fiction—a short story. It’s about an au pair named Sonia who witnesses, and facilitates, the unraveling of the woman she works for and her marriage. Sonia is a modern, well-off mother’s nightmare: The younger nanny who supplants her. But in the end, it’s Sonia who has to leave. In the book’s final image, she makes a stollen for her former employers, who are living separately from each other, and divides the cake into two equal halves, one for each of them. The male and the female: symmetrical but cut apart by a knife. That’s Rachel Cusk’s vision of divorce, rendered more clearly in fiction than she can manage, as yet, in fact.
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.