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REVIEW: Outline



Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber

ISBN-13: 978-0374228347

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is little evidence of the narrator of this story of stories. The reader knows that she is a woman, a writer, a writing coach, divorced and that she has two sons. These things are revealed piecemeal and through conversations with the people she meets on a trip to Athens to teach a writing course.

That which is revealed about the writer are the things we glean about her from her choice of conversations she includes, but also through the very few questions her conversations partners throw her way sometimes. The book is a string of story pearls, each pearl added by the people she encounters, from her neighbour on the plane, to the friends she meets in Athens, to the people who attend her writing class.

In unlikely expositions, each tells her about him or herself in a series of conversations she has with them. Unlikely, because however open any person is to listening, it is doubtful that strangers will dissect happenings in their personal lives – not the great dramas, though there are plenty of those too, but the prosaic moments that lead to insight and revelation – to a complete stranger.

In order to enjoy the book, it is necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and, like the narrator, simply sit back and listen. If you can overcome what feels like a glitch in the writer’s expectation of the reader’s sense of what is possible, then this work will reward you on every page.

This is Cusk’s eighth novel. She has also written three non-fiction works, two of which – A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and aftermath – elicited such bitter criticism, it is quite astonishing that she finds the courage to continue.

To be clear: the criticism is not of her ability to write. Cusk is a very good writer. The criticism is against her particular form of memoir, which has been called exploitative and cold. I have no such criticism against her. I find her intellect too sharp, her questioning too pertinent and her expositions too layered to get sucked into conversations about “how dare she”. She must dare. Writers of her calibre must dare and dare and dare the reader to go towards conversations and concerns that are mostly hidden behind veils of righteousness. Cusk is fearless in this and, I am glad, uncowed by the outcries of her pseudo-liberal critics.

Her last book, Aftermath, chronicled her divorce, but it was not a dirty laundry book and exposed very little of the intimate machinations of one marriage and its ending. Instead, she brings a classical eye to modern conundrums around feminism and equality.

Here, although Outline is fiction, she gives voice to a fraction of the nuances, blemishes, quiet joys and teachings of human relations. Most of the people with whom the narrator comes into contact, end up speaking about their relationships – with marriage partners, children and extended family, sometimes with animals, learning or the arts – and they are not afraid to air their dirty laundry. Interestingly, while they voice their irritations with others, the main thrust of their disclosures are deeply personal and cast them at times in a somewhat queasy light, though one’s judgment is held in check because they are so recognisably, poignantly human in their fallibilities.

While telling a story in which a woman recounts life with an incorrigible dog – which she admits to ending up beating– the  woman says “I became aware of this feeling of having deserted my own life … and I was suddenly filled with the most extraordinary sense of existence as a secret pain, an inner torment it was impossible to share with others, who asked you to attend to them while remaining oblivious to what was inside you”.

These sorts of observations – that plunge into the darkest pools of the crisis of living amongst people in a state of impenetrable singularity – make this novel a rewarding and subtly cerebral pleasure.


REVIEW: Aftermath


Aftermath – On Marriage and Separation

Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Aftermath is the second book Cusk has written that seems to have united disparate groups in an almost rabid hatred of her.

As with A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, I am amazed that she is able to draw such odium – mostly and particularly from women – and must conclude that any attempt to think more deeply about the political as it manifests in the personal is an activity society is not ready for.

It is far easier to think globally, than personally; to fight for the right for women to request divorce, or shout against the rise of divorce statistics and the disintegration of “family values”, than to talk about the personal anguish that leads to divorce, and the crosshatch of interwoven losses that follow it.

Cusk begins with the personal, quite literally, in the opening sentence of Aftermath: “Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.”

It is precisely the memoir form that ignited such vitriol against Cusk. What right does she have to speak so openly about such personal matters? How dare she expose her children and her husband so rudely in order to write a book for which she will make money? She is exploitative, cold, rude and embarrassing. These are only some of the criticisms against her.

The truth is, that if it’s voyeurism you’re after, you won’t find it in Aftermath. Cusk is too deft a writer, too in control of her craft to get messy. No-one is named. The reason (though there never is just one reason, is there?) for the divorce is never given. She does not trash her ex-husband. If there is dirty laundry here, it is in fact public and political dirty laundry and not the bloodied tablecloth over which a single marriage came to shatter.

I couldn’t help feeling that part of the reason for her critics’ ire – if they’d bothered to read the book at all, instead of mish-mash, sensationalised newspaper “extracts”– was that their voyeuristic inclinations had been left frustrated.

Aftermath is not, in fact, a personal story. It is the story of the institution of marriage, and how it reconciles itself, or not, with feminism. In describing her married life – in which she worked and her husband looked after the children and cooked, in which she earned money, baked, fetched children and fulfilled deadlines – she says: “In a sense I was living at the high point of feminist possibility: there was no blueprint beyond ‘having it all’…to have both motherhood and work was to have two lives instead of one, was a stunning refinement of historical female experience”.

Using Greek mythology – a place populated by unashamedly emotional and rigorously impolite gods – and the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, Cusk sets out to examine the more honest battles of life and love than the unquestioning authority of marriage and its concomitant moral pronouncements.

“There are no devoted mothers [in Greek mythology], no perfect children, no protective dutiful fathers, no public morality. There is only emotion, and the attempt to tame it, to shape it into a force for good.”

Shaping personal or political trauma for a force of good is, after all, what one believes the study of history and sociology to be: an attempt to examine what has happened, to find the patterns, to work within the strictures of what simply is, while also testing dogmas that seem implacable. Aftermath, is such an examination. Of course it makes people uncomfortable. Which is why it is an excellent book, a stringent, merciless and thoughtful reflection, using the tools provided by all the writer’s faculties, and harnessing the power of history and experience.

Aftermath  is also about the loss of security divorce brings, not just financial, but social.

“I feel our stigma, our loss of prestige: we are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary. I see that we have lost a degree of protection, of certainty,” she writes of her post-separation life with her two daughters.

Cusk walks the fine line of the confessional delicately, revealing only enough about herself to tell a more universal story. In an interview she says: “It is important to understand that the individual nature of experience is essentially at odds…with any public discourse. I no longer presume to know how other women live or think or feel. I can only try to align myself with them, to get into sympathy with them, by saying how it is for me.” She says that in the breakdown of a marriage “the whole broken mechanism of feminism” was revealed to her.

Along with Susan Maushart and Katha Pollitt, Cusk forms, in my opinion, the frontline of new feminist thinking, which apparently concerns itself less with the academic and polemical public face of feminism (though this is not, in fact, at all true, as all three are intellectually deeply sunk in feminist history), than with the way feminism plays out on the border between the self and society.

Cusk is, however, not just an intellectual and emotional force on the page, but a fine, nuanced, disciplined writer. Aftermath reads quickly in spite of almost every second sentence being a direct confrontation on received wisdom which requires the reader to pause for his or her own emotional and intellectual response.

I declare Aftermath unequivocally fantastic. But then I don’t belong to a larger camp – the one which vilifies the messenger in order to avoid considering the implications of her message.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in May 2012.