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Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
160 pp., $20.00
In the Land of Ashes
Rachel Cusk's new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, confronts me with the invisible work I do to shield myself from a shibboleth of my married-with-children existence. Neither I nor my spouse can choose to divorce. As I plant gardens, drive children to music lessons, and lie next to my husband at night, there is some part of me occupied with the subterranean effort of shoring myself against this forbidden path. Experiencing Aftermath is cathartic, like plunging into an ice floe, downing a shot of whiskey, or reading Nietzsche. As you read Cusk's first-person narrative of her life following her divorce from her husband, you are making your way not only through the ashes of Rachel Cusk's marriage but also through the charred remains of the institution of matrimony.
I've wondered from time to time whether it is one of the pitfalls of modern family life, with its relentless jollity, its entirely unfounded optimism, its reliance not on God or economics but on the principle of love, that it fails to recognize—and take precautions against—the human need for war.
Aftermath has an Old Testament feel with its imagery of battle, blood, and tombs and Cusk's unrelenting judgment on gender constructs, the "holy family," and most especially herself, what she refers to as "the discipline of self criticism." Mercy is scant, and the law of the land is decreed by Rachel Cusk's mind.
Before you settle in among the ashes, you must work to keep up; the pace is brisk in the first chapters. I imagine Cusk as a British docent saying, "We are walking, we are walking." The path is strewn with paradoxes she sets up and moves on from, with little sense of obligation to resolve or even acknowledge her contradictions. Do stories have power to relay truths? Early on she writes that her husband believes that she "treated him monstrously" and that "his whole world depended on this belief. It was his story and lately I've come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster ...