Rachel Cusk is a master of describing life’s shocks. In The Country Life (1997), Cusk presents the hapless Stella Benson, whose psychic turmoil leads her to take a position as a governess in the countryside. In the contemporary gothic tale, funny and disquieting, we find poor Stella ravaged by her own mental instability and the harshness of nature. As she leaves London for the village of Hilltop, she reflects on her nervousness: “It was normal, of course, that I should feel some anxiety about my departure. Not only was I setting out to a place I had never been before; I was also embarking on a kind of life about which I knew nothing; and what is more, stripping myself of all that was familiar to me into the bargain” (The Country Life, p. 1-2). Cusk allows us to sympathize with Stella’s dramatic foibles as she starts a new life for which she is patently unprepared.
This turns out to be the situation of Cusk herself in A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother. Cusk’s memoir details “the strange reality of motherhood” (p. 3) as she becomes exiled from the territory of the writer to the unfamiliar land of motherhood. With great attention to the mental and physical shock of becoming a mother, she attempts to translate her private experiences for us in hopes that we might find something we recognize.
Organized thematically, A Life’s Work has chapters on colic, breastfeeding, caregivers, and sleep deprivation. All of this sounds routine for a book about the first year with a new baby. But Cusk breaks taboos, speaking with humor of the tyranny of breast-feeding and health workers, the inanity of mother-and-baby groups, the impossibility of finding the perfect caregiver, and the hallucinogenic world of the sleepless parent.
To take one example, Cusk describes a parent-and-tot meeting in a church hall, in which a small monster named Cordelia bullies her child, and Cusk says all the wrong things (“Julia bakes marvelous cakes, the woman next to her informed me after a pause. Really? I said with frantic delight. I’ve always thought I’d love to be a baker. Do you make any money out of it? The two women looked at each other like schoolgirls, with horrified eyes” [p. 170]). Cusk captures perfectly the inanities of some of these groups, as I’ve experienced them: the tyrannical children, the mothers with whom you have nothing in common.
Furthermore, these subjects are all in the service of a deeper theme: the pain of becoming a mother, the deep anxieties and misgivings Cusk has over her shrinking world, and the transformations of self that necessarily occur. To articulate these thoughts, Cusk uses a whole storeroom of metaphors to describe both her new self and her baby. With her daughter’s birth, Cusk states, “I become an undone task, a phone call I can’t seem to make, a bill I don’t get around to paying. My life has the seething atmosphere of an untended garden” (p. 133). Cusk is also “a house to which an extension has been added” (94), “a spy, bent upon the maintenance of an outward appearance while my existence revolves covertly around the secret of my daughter” (97), a woman who, while her baby sleeps, can “liaise, as if it were a lover, with my former life” (65). The baby is variously seen as an alien (p. 53), a “doll” (p. 54,) a material possession (p. 51), an “exotic, uncaged animal” (64), a “colony” (p. 95), and above all a being who forges both herself and her mother (p. 70).
To some readers, these comparisons may seem to strain credulity, the exaggerations of an up-and-coming novelist (named one of Granta magazine‘s best new writers) who has the luxury of wallowing in her own anxieties. Cusk describes herself about to mix bottles of formula as akin to “someone preparing to assemble a bomb” (p. 107), with her partner assuming the role of a “hired assassin” to her own role as “traitor” (p. 107). A sleepless night becomes an evening in which “we have run marathons, negotiated the Masstricht Treaty, extinguished forest fires” (p. 185-86). Goodness, I think, trying to remember the first year of my children’s lives, was it really so bad? How easy it is to forget! But it only takes a sick child or two waking through the night, pulling you out of your well-earned dreams, to remind you of the shadowy life of the new parent.
Moreover, Cusk’s dramatic metaphors remind us that she is a writer. Cusk writes of the conflict between her “self” and being a mother: “To succeed in being one means to fail at being the other” (p. 57); one suspects that a large part of that “self” is the authorial self. The freedom to concentrate, to write according to one’s own schedule, above all, to carry on a mental dialogue about one’s work, these things are lost, at least temporarily. Cusk’s own salvation seems to lie in her metaphors, and I imagine them floating into her tired and distracted consciousness, reminding her that she is a writer, and then being gathered into this book. Her associative powers, key to her writing talent, provide consolation.
Cusk’s reigning metaphor, significant because of the work it does in this book and her next one, is her description of herself as an inmate, with pregnancy and motherhood her prisons (p. 2, 15, 51). When she takes her baby off her breast, she is “like a prisoner attempting a jailbreak” (p. 96). Life in the small university town, where she briefly lives to escape London, turns out to be “a prison sentence” (p. 162). Most notably, rather than a room of her own, Cusk now occupies with her baby a claustrophobic space. Tethered to the kitchen, the center of domesticity, Cusk writes that “in this lonely place I am indeed not free: the kitchen is a cell, a place of no possibility” (p. 138). Only as her daughter grows are rooms returned to her (p. 208).
During her imprisonment, Cusk finds guidance and inspiration not from the myriad of child-care manuals strewn in her path, but from revisiting treasured literary works. How little comfort she derives from the first set of books, how much from the second! This quality of the memoir cemented its appeal for me, and will, I suspect, for other literary mothers. As she becomes a mother, Cusk’s reading of the classics changes; she notices passages she skimmed before. Thus we encounter lengthy references and quotations from The House of Mirth, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, The Rainbow, and, in one of the book’s most beautiful moments, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems).
Coleridge’s poem inspires Cusk, and as its mood changes, so does hers: “Confinement becomes freedom, ugliness beauty: parenthood is redemptive, transformative, creative” (p. 141). Dirty diapers and disruptive nights have not ceased to exist, but this particular poetic moment restores Coleridge, and by extension, Cusk. Salvation lies in language, and we wouldn’t expect a writer to feel otherwise.
If A Life’s Work details the sufferings of the new mother, The Lucky Ones displays the interwoven trials of a group of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. Published three years after Cusk’s memoir, this series of five short stories is held together by the recurrence of certain characters and themes: the lawyer Victor Porter and his wife Serena, who writes a newspaper column on her family life; the effects of motherhood, and parenthood more generally; secrets and lies; and above all, the question of who, in fact, are the lucky ones. In this contemporary Dubliners, where the city is parenthood, it is often difficult to tell.
The first story, “Confinement,” puns on the old-fashioned term for child-birth in the tale of an unjustly imprisoned young woman. Kirsty’s story makes literal the metaphor Cusk used in her memoir, and shows us what is truly frightening — not the shrinking world caused by having children, but the situation of a working-class pregnant woman, mistakenly in jail, about to lose her right to her child. Rather than constraining her, Kirsty’s unborn baby protects her from some of the nastiness of prison life, and gives her something of her own. Victor Porter, her new lawyer, has given her hope that when the baby is born, they will be transferred together to a special unit. This does not happen. Clearly, Kirsty is not one of the lucky ones.
At first, the stories that follow seem to have left Kirsty far behind. In “The Way You Do It,” we are transported to a skiing holiday in the Alps, where the main character, who has left his wife and three-week-old daughter behind in England, painfully considers his life’s new direction. In “The Sacrifices,” a woman returns to the home where she grew up, and assesses her relationships with her mother, her sister, and her husband. “Mrs. Daley’s Daughter” shows us the pernicious games a guilt-ridden mother plays on her daughter. As we look more closely, however, we notice that the replacement lawyer who met with Kirsty is on the ski trip; that the unnamed narrator of “The Sacrifices” has a twin sister who was on that ski trip, too; and so on. The connections are there. And the final story, “Matters of Life and Death,” returns us to Kirsty.
The Lucky Ones also brings us back to Cusk’s memoir. Although the short stories let us in to several distinct consciousnesses, the memoir’s analogies have a ghostly presence in this new volume, and not only in the frequent images of confinement. A Life’s Work opens with a harrowing summary of a walking trip in the Pyrenees that Cusk took when she was first pregnant. When she chooses a short cut, she ends up sliding down the mountain ice, falling precariously, clinging to a boulder, then at last descending the rest of the way down the ice field. The instinct to survive overcomes fear, and Cusk suspects motherhood will be the same. At one point, Cusk describes the mountain as “a long ski-run” (p. 21), but even if she did not, we would connect this episode with the second story in The Lucky Ones, “The Way You Do It,” which occurs at a ski resort. Here the six characters have different ways of doing it — namely, of getting down the mountain. Martin, away from his wife and child, is an expert and controlled skier who uses the sensation of skiing to fly away from his home life. But after a morning pondering all the problems of his new life, he skis so recklessly he ends up clinging to the side of a cliff without his skis. After a conversation with a friend, he regains his emotional balance and has a new sense of his fatherhood within the span of his life.
It’s important that Cusk transfers some elements of her own story to that of Martin, the new father. The Lucky Ones is kind to fathers, who in this book frequently step in as nurturers, and who stand outside the painful relationships between mothers and daughters, which are often characterized by guilt, recriminations, even child abuse. Who, then, is lucky? Some of the characters believe that they are, or that their parents are. Some cast themselves as perpetually unlucky. By the end of the novel, we can only believe in the dicing hand of chance. Cusk encourages her characters, and us, too, to take a modernist approach to life and recognize the importance of the moment. Thus Martin’s epiphany is to feel “himself connected to a series of moments in his life, which seemed to disclose themselves deeper and deeper in him” (p. 58). One of Cusk’s wounded characters experiences a sudden joy when she realizes “that she was free eternally to inhabit this moment, which, unlike other moments, did not appear to contain anything to hurt her” (p. 222).
Cusk’s memoir is rich in literary allusion. The method of The Lucky Ones, with its emphasis on sudden revelations, the importance of the moment, and the connections between individuals, is indebted to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. “Mrs. Daley’s Daughter” even becomes a sad and parodic version of Mrs. Dalloway, concluding with a party that is described in Woolfian terms: “And so many other things had happened that evening: life had risen like a great wave and dashed the little structures of nearby days. The party had been a great success. The Porters had come, and had glittered at the centre of it all” (p. 156). But Mrs. Daley, the story’s narrator, is no Mrs. Dalloway; instead of forging connections she deceives herself and others.
The end of The Lucky Ones leaves us with a sense of relief, not only because Kirsty has been found again, but because we feel ourselves, by comparison with the book’s characters, to be tremendously lucky. Rachel Cusk must feel similarly. In A Life’s Work, she fears that some part of her will welcome in motherhood the “opportunity to give up” her vocation (p. 135). Her recent novel proves that did not happen. Moreover, when we finish The Lucky Ones we yearn for the world of A Life’s Work, with all of its inanities, self-discoveries, trials, love, and humor.