Book Reviews: Two By Rachel Cusk

Serial autobiographer Rachel Cusk (she has written at least three memoirs so far) writes what she knows: the disappointments of a suburban mother and divorcee.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Arlington Park (2006) follows the intertwined lives of four mothers on a rainy day in suburban England.

From our perspective more than a decade later, we know that this was a relatively calm and prosperous time—much worse was coming soon. (Most of the men in this story probably lost their jobs, and the families may have lost their nice suburban homes circa 2009.)

But these women are far from happy, and it is mostly because their husbands have “murdered” them. At least, that is what we learn from their introspection and conversations.

Suburban life is materialistic and spiritually empty, raising children is a drudge, and women are prevented from having a meaningful career and life.

Men, on the other hand, get the good jobs, choice of where to live, and no housework or child care.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Cusk isn’t telling us anything thing new, she’s just telling it from “the women’s point of view”.

Cusk is a clever writer, though I found the internal monologs hard to follow. Perhaps I’m not English enough. Or not suburban enough. Or maybe my dumb-old linear male brain can’t grok the meandering ruminations of these women.

The women are the only characters who are fleshed out in any depth. The children are unpleasant horrors that even their mothers seem to dislike. The men are monstrous idiots who don’t understand their wives and don’t seem to care (as far as the wives can tell).

It’s all a wasteland, and Cusk offers no particular solution or even hope of a solution. Love has failed. All men are useless. Motherhood cannot be undone. Life sucks.

The only prescription seems to be not to get married, and definitely not to have children.

Cusk suggests (almost certainly based on her own life) that it would be better to stay in the big city than to move to the suburbs. Life is more stimulating, even if scarier. On this, she may have a point. See, perhaps, Straub’s version of motherhood in the big city.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

And so, Transit (2016) tells about a divorced woman with children who moves back into the city. (This is obviously partly autobiographical.)

In Cusk’s accustomed style, the story is told in a series of conversations with friends, colleagues, neighbors, the builders renovating her flat, and so on.

The title refers to an astrological reading supposedly based on a celestial transit, at the same time she is transiting back into the city.  (We never really learn what the astrological reading says, only that it exists.)

The conversations include some men (for a change), though they are troubled and some are very troubling. Everyone seems to have a messed up childhood. Can it be that everyone in London was abused or abandoned as a child?

I guess it is good news that it isn’t all the fault of men, and that women aren’t the only ones who are damaged.

Much of Cusk’s work is about motherhood and children, and Transit also touches on fatherhood, at least, as viewed by a woman. Many of the men and women (including the narrator) are divorced, some more than once, and they are dealing with children. I must say that neither the children nor the parents are particularly attractive in this book. One despairs for the future of these people.

What seemed in the earlier story to be the solution to her “death”, seems no better. It is perhaps telling, then that once in London, she sends her children off to their father, and takes several trips out into the country. In fact, she spends almost no time at all in the city, and her children appear mostly in her memory and on the phone.

I haven’t read much of Cusk’s writings, so I can’t really be sure that she is never happy, positive, or even ironic. What I have read is, for better or worse, pretty grim reading. She may or may not be representing the contemporary life of women, I can’t say. But I’m not finding any solutions or even any path to a better way here. I wish I were.

And what’s the deal with all the memoirs, anyway?

  1. Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
  2. Rachel Cusk, Transit, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016.


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