THE END of a marriage produces something new, something different from before.
“The new reality,” writes literary prize-winner Rachel Cusk in her latest book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Divorce. “A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken.”
As a 44-year-old mother of two living in Brighton who ended her marriage, I was interested to read Cusk, also a 44-year-old mother of two living in Brighton who had ended her marriage. The world is full of fortysomething mothers who have ended their marriages — what universal truths would Aftermath contain?
In 2009, Cusk separated from her husband of 10 years. And then she wrote about it — not so much the marriage (the title is slightly misleading), but the aftermath of its ending. She spares us nothing of her inward rawness — it’s not a straightforward he-said-she-said memoir, but a raw, scraping exploration of Cusk’s new reality that in parts reads more like the disintegration of an individual than a couple. It is a forensic, intellectual dissection of feelings, and for all its chilly cerebral beauty, is still terribly vivid and sad.
What does happen in the aftermath of a marriage? Displacement, temporary loss of identity, redefinition. The I, not the We. The cosy pair-shaped structure is gone, replaced by something that seems initially flimsier, until it has been re-established into something singular and solid. Meanwhile, you make sure the children don’t collapse in on themselves.
I was lucky. When my husband and I parted, our lack of mutual antipathy meant we acted ‘as if’ and presented a united front when we explained to them that although the two of us were no longer a couple, the four of us were still a family. We managed to keep it calm. We didn’t tear each other apart in front of the kids, or even behind their backs. Like I said, I was lucky.
But is it seemly to write about it? Like Cusk’s memoir of motherhood, A Life’s Work, Aftermath is already getting people’s backs up. ‘Self absorbed’, ‘should have stayed quiet’, ‘the poor husband’ — has been some of the criticism. Yet there is nothing of the splurgey confessional about this. As Julie Burchill compliments, Cusk is the extreme opposite of Liz Jones.
Unlike her jauntier Faber stablemate Hanif Kureishi in his 1998 thinly-disguised novel Intimacy, in which the protagonist is pitiless about the wife he is leaving, Cusk’s pitilessness extends in all directions, most often towards herself. Yet while Kureishi was mildly rebuked for his public harshness, it was never suggested that he should have shut up about it. Only women are told to shut up about things.
Aftermath is a meditative exploration on what is mother, father, feminism, marriage, and how these identities and states of being stuck together become unstuck. Whose authority will she now follow, if not the authority of the marriage? Marriage, she suggests, provides form and order out of the chaos of individuals — where will her form and order come from now? And then there is the commonplace displacement of the break-up: “Everywhere people are in couples.”
How do you redefine the I Am after separation — I am separated or I am divorced, rather than I am married? It is such a short time since ‘divorced’ was regarded with suspicion. Or pity. For most women it means increased responsibilities and reduced finances. Or as Hanif Kureishi puts it in Intimacy, “A lone middle-aged woman with kids doesn’t have much cachet”. (Gee, thanks.)
However, Cusk does not quite face the struggles of Everywoman.
Her married domestic set up was what many would consider enviable. She wrote, and looked after the children. Her husband gave up his job as a lawyer to also look after the children. “My notion is that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female,” she writes. “That was equality, was it not? He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.”
But when they separated, and her husband wanted the children half the week, and her continued financial support (the usual story, except with the genders reversed), Cusk’s response reverted to primal. “‘They’re my children,’ I said. ‘They belong to me.’”
Cusk does not appeal to us to like her, or empathise with her. Yet how truly her words resonate when she writes, “I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked, picked them up from school when they were older. And my husband helped me… why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he would eat?”
I would often be reminded of how ‘good’ my husband was to look after our children two days out of every seven; I was the main breadwinner, and the main childcare provider, no questions asked, but he was ‘good’ to ‘babysit’ his own children. This is not a criticism of him as an individual, but of the massive crushing assumption made by society: “Oh, she’s a woman, she’ll do it.”
Read Aftermath well after your own aftermath, when the next phase of your life is firmly underway; reading it in the middle of a painful separation might finish you off. At the end, Cusk writes a beautiful chapter from the perspective of an Eastern European au pair called Sonia, who stays with a family whose mother has withdrawn, not eating, to her room, thin and ghostlike and agonised. Downstairs, the father and children muddle along. It is this ordinary pain which most resonates.