Early in her memoir “Aftermath,” Rachel Cusk describes a milestone in the life of anyone who has ever divorced: the first holiday apart.
She and her two daughters “go to a Christmas carol service and I watch the other families. I watch mother and father and children. And I see it so clearly, as though I were looking in at them through a brightly lit window from the darkness outside; see the story in which they play their roles, their parts, with the whole world as a backdrop. We’re not part of that story any more, my children and I. We belong more to the world, in all its risky disorder, its fragmentation, its freedom.”
Cusk is a great observer of the roles people — and especially women — play, studying not only the garbs they put on for tradition and ideology, but also how this action affects their understanding of themselves. The author of seven novels, she is best known for her 2001 memoir, “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother,” in which she chronicled the difficulty she had maintaining her identity amid the trappings of motherhood. In that work, the problem was one of addition. Her new role as a mother went head to head with what felt like another, truer self. “I felt inhabited by a second self, a twin whose jest it was — in the way of twins — to appear to be me while doing things that were alien to my own character.”
In “Aftermath,” Cusk explores a similar dilemma through subtraction. Like motherhood, she observes, marriage comes with significant cultural acceptance. You get to sit in the pew, so to speak. But what happens when a marriage collapses? When you are no longer husband and wife, but just yourself, just a woman?
For starters, you lose weight. Or at least Cusk did. Yet like much in this smart book, that image is only a metaphor for something larger. “I can’t eat, and soon my clothes are too big for me, all gaping sleeves and sagging waistbands.” The old roles, old costumes no longer fit, lie tangled in a messy heap.
From this withered position, Cusk struggles early in the book to understand what went wrong. She had, after all, made efforts in her marriage to maintain her own identity, writing full-time while her husband watched their children. Yet, in reality, she writes, “I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband — meaning well — only did one.” When her soon-to-be-ex assumes they will share custody of the children equally, the breadwinner balks. “They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.”
Cusk is a controversial writer in England, where she resides, and these admissions have led to charges of hypocrisy, but no one is more aware of her contradictions than she. After her lawyer implies she will have to support her husband, she writes: “But he’s a qualified lawyer, I said. And I’m just a writer. What I meant was, he’s a man. And I’m just a woman.”
It turns out that no matter how you do the math, being “just a woman” is a complicated equation. The problem is partly practical: How do you reconcile your ideals with the messiness of everyday life? But Cusk also hints at an existential condition, wherein women have become so consumed by playing various roles that they cannot recognize what they truly feel. Reflecting on her marriage, she wonders, “Why couldn’t the outside and the inside be the same?”
As if to reinforce the slippery nature of women’s identity, Cusk often talks around the subject, particularly as the book progresses. It is a work replete with metaphors, literary allusions and even some fiction. This remove may alienate readers wanting more personal detail, and Cusk is occasionally too cautious. For instance, she suggests that her marriage collapsed partly because of infidelity but withholds any particulars — an unfortunate omission, as a portrait of someone doing something just for him- or herself could be illuminating here.
Nevertheless, the book is engaging throughout. The writing is full of feeling, and even the stylistic oddities contribute to a sense of wandering and solitude, which, speaking from my own experience, feels entirely appropriate. For unlike marriage and motherhood, divorce has few playbooks. “We are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary,” Cusk writes of herself and her daughters. “I see that we have lost a degree of protection, of certainty.”
And yet, while frightening, abandoning certain scripts can bring an openness that Cusk, for one, wouldn’t trade for anything. Having shed her old roles, she has learned a lesson about the importance of writing one’s own story, however complicated that may be.
On Marriage and Separation
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar Straus Giroux. 146 pp. $20