In the wake of separation, memoirist Rachel Cusk reflects on the lingering pain left behind.
Nine years after Rachel Cusk's seminal 2003 memoir, "A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother," set the stage for women everywhere to come clean about the emotional, financial and physical toll of motherhood, she returns with what might be called a sequel.
"Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation" starkly illustrates what comes after motherhood, at least for Cusk, in an abstract style that will speak closely to some while leaving others wishing for a more sequential retrospection of Cusk's marriage and subsequent divorce.
What many readers may fail to appreciate is that Cusk does write intimately about her family's life with, and without, her husband -- just not in the voyeuristic manner that our society has grown used to. Cusk artfully maintains that today's family's fatal flaw is "its reliance not on God or economics but on the principle of love, that it fails to recognize -- and to take precautions against -- the human need for war."
Whether there is a defining incident that caused Cusk's separation from her husband we don't know, and nor should we necessarily care. Cusk's focus is on the pain and grief that accompanies the deterioration of a marriage and a life built together, specifically when it involves children. She returns to some of the themes in "A Life's Work" and explores what it means to be a mother in society's eyes as well as her own. She writes: "To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values."
Cusk, a novelist, relies heavily throughout the memoir on references to Greek drama to illustrate the perils of marriage and children, at one point referring to Clytemnestra as a fellow working mother and single parent. In the most wrenching chapter, the couple's breakup is seen through the eyes of their recently arrived au pair, who suffers from her own lingering despair and depression.
As philosophical as this memoir may be, Cusk also deftly balances exposing her depleted mental state with her physical deterioration by detailing a brutal tooth extraction and the slow wasting away of her body due to her lack of appetite.
"Aftermath" is less of a traditional memoir and more of a well-wrought treatise on the stark reality of divorce. Cusk fearlessly cultivates her own aftermath, or "second sowing," and chooses to live "the disorganized life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity, than to dwell in civilized unity, racked by the impulse to destroy."
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.