It’s obvious right away that Rachel Cusk, an enormously talented writer — author of the memoir “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother’’ and the novel “The Bradshaw Variations,’’ among other books — made a mistake by publishing this memoir of her divorce so precipitously. Brimming with rage, resentment, and sarcasm, with frequent digressions that teeter on the edge of incoherence, the book requires patience and even forgiveness from the reader.
Nevertheless, it is likely to reward those patient, forgiving types because there are riches buried like gold in the bitter picture she describes.
Roughly chronological, the memoir begins with the first days after the separation and ends (although it isn’t clear how much time has passed) with the possibility of a new romance. Barely two pages in, we start to suspect the book will be a rant when she deems her ex-husband’s perspective utterly unrelated to truth: “My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story.”
She characterizes her family after the separation as “a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces,” in which “we were moving not forwards but backwards, back into chaos, into history and pre-history.” But then, weirdly, she draws an awkward analogy to seventh-century Britain “before the advent of nationhood” when it lacked “a driving, unifying force” — comparing her failed family in its new, dangerously splintered form with the Dark Ages in Britain.
Such wildly inapposite passages send the distinct, if unintended, message that the writer’s emotions themselves were so fragmented that she could make little sense of them.
The good parts are the occasions of self-revelation, when Cusk is forced to examine her long-held feminist principles of parenting. They begin with the shocking moment when Cusk, out of some shadowy, unknown part of herself, flatly tells her soon-to-be-ex-husband that he is not entitled to share custody of the children: “They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.”
She takes this position despite the family’s egalitarian organizing principle — so quintessentially feminist that it was the husband who performed most of the domestic chores and stayed home with the kids.
“Call yourself a feminist,” he responds in disgust, and really, who can blame him? Cusk herself is distressed by her hypocrisy: “Where had this heresy gestated? . . . Where had it hidden itself?’’
Yet she is doubting the premises under which her family had functioned — premises she had not only agreed to but insisted on, which required that the “long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed — all [went] unmentioned, willfully or casually forgotten.” Was the forgetting, perhaps, a sacrifice she hadn’t understood, or had refused to understand — a “condition of the treaty that gave me my equality, that I would not invoke the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down.”
This kind of political incorrectness is rarely, if ever, seen in print these days, so it was thrilling to see Cusk courageously question whether the position she’d staked out as a young woman could perhaps have been wrong.
Not that anyone knows the answer. How could they, when for a generation or more women have not been free — have not allowed themselves to be free — to consider any choice but the two standing in direct opposition to each other: Either a woman has the identical range of choices that men do, or she must be the parent who raises the children. Either/or. And like many either/or conflicts, defining the battle lines seemed to simplify the issue even as it made a solution impossible.
Now Cusk realizes that “of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge,” and gives as examples war — and motherhood.
Another example is divorce, also writing a memoir of divorce while in the midst of it. In including the latter example I’m giving Cusk the benefit of the doubt, since the drawbacks of that decision don’t seem like rocket science. But she deserves the benefit of the doubt. She’s been through hell, remember, and has been formidably, awesomely honest with herself.