This isn’t really a book review. I’m a little frightened of doing a book review on piece of fiction. To be honest I don’t feel terribly well qualified (notwithstanding my bachelors degree in English, which my husband still irritatingly refers to as a “Degree in the AB-use of the English Language” after 11 years of marriage). It’s been a long time since I’ve read much fiction, so I’m a little out of touch and likely to gush at any piece of trash I might read, likely to confuse the unfamiliar sensation that is the pleasure of reading with a great book.
And actually I didn’t really enjoy Aftermath – On Marriage and Separation. It isn’t really a book for enjoyment. This much should have been obvious from the title. It’s Rachel Cusk’s seventh novel, an autobiographical one at that. I read a review of it some time ago and ordered it on the spot. It is only now, the pace of life slowed slightly by broken bones and enforced foot elevation, that I have managed to read it. Thankfully it is slender, for if it were longer I would inevitably never have finished it and it would be languishing on the bedside table with last year’s Xmas book, too heavy to pop in my handbag, too dense to face before bed.
I galloped through it, consciously skimming the surface – partly to make sure I didn’t lose momentum and end up with another unfinished book, and also because this comprehensive girl found the classical references a little alienating, one layer of difficulty more than I was prepared to invest. Perhaps I wanted to rush to the end in the faint hope of a happy ending I knew would not be there. It was an uncomfortable and destabilising reading experience particularly because – apart from the obvious absence of divorce in my own life – there was much life experience in this autobiographical fiction that echoes my own. Cusk articulates many of the tensions, complexities and downright contradictions for couples whose roles within the family runs counter to traditional gender roles. It sounds easy, just swapping. But it’s a constant dance of vulnerability and anxiety and self-conscious validation of self and spouse. It’s a daily challenge of our understanding of woman and man, of mother and father, of husband and wife. And yet it’s a daily challenge that we dare not confront in the whirlwind of work and snatched moments of cleaning, of rushing to and from work, of conking out the minute the kids are asleep, of missed moments of intimacy. This book reminded me of all those issues that get lost in the everyday.
It was refreshing to read some beautiful prose. I thought it was searingly beautiful, poetic writing, but I have been so impoverished by reading only reference books, legal commentary and news that I was gorging on it without properly digesting. It reminded me why I should read more fiction, reminded me of faded teenaged aspirations to be a writer. It made me sigh. I should slow down.