Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Outline, has been praised as a fresh direction, perhaps an artistic advance from her previous work. Her earlier novels are well written, conventional, and self- revealing; and Outline is well written, arty, and reticent. She has written seven novels before it, receiving a Whitbread Prize for her first, Saving Agnes, and was shortlisted for later ones. She has also written three controversial memoirs. One is a travel book about Italy that brought her the menace of lawsuits (The Last Supper); the other two recount her experiences of motherhood (A Life’s Work) and then divorce (Aftermath). In both of those books she detailed her personal views as an apostate from received opinions and brought down vicious reactions in the British press.
Cusk, who was born in Canada and now lives in London, has been described as “the most hated” novelist in Britain, and this judgment is directed not at her writing but at her character and her social attitudes. Most of the opprobrium arose from her motherhood book, which is frank and funny, and the strong reaction to it exposes the hypocrisy of official pieties. In it she dares to say that motherhood is not an unalloyed joy, and attempts to explain the cultural roots of the reasons it was difficult for her: “Motherhood, for me, was a sort of compound fenced off from the rest of the world. I was forever plotting my escape from it….” As she put it in Aftermath, she had been socialized as a man:
To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values. And my habitat, my environment, had evolved that way too. An adaptation would be required. But who was going to be doing the adapting?…
Finding herself unable to adapt, Cusk explains that she did two things: she “conscripted” her husband into giving up his job and staying home with the children, while she taught in a university. We can all imagine how this arrangement worked out; but she dissects the attempt with elaborate analogies to Clytemnestra and Abraham, the high tone recalling, say, Joan Didion’s memoirs. But whereas everyone can empathize with Didion’s experience of grief for the death of loved ones, Cusk’s willful self-destructiveness seems not to have evoked much pity from the harsh sisterhood of her critics. One, in a piece later awarded the prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year, wrote:
Cusk herself seems extraordinary—a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish. She tramples anyone close to her, especially Clarke [the husband], whom she has forced to give up his job in order to look after the kids. She pours scorn on his “dependence” and “unwaged domesticity,” but won’t…
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