As every reader not living under a rock now knows, the novelist Rachel Cusk has written about her separation from her husband, and the effects on her family. Passages have been reprinted, quoted, and quarrelled over so much that it is now not just a memoir but a scandal. Like Julie Myerson's book about her skunk-smoking son, it is frequently described as "brave", a journalistic euphemism for "disastrous".
The book itself is more artful and nuanced than the extracts allow; as with her previous non-fiction, personal experience gives rise to insights into works of classical literature – here, inevitably, the Oresteia. Her husband, whose accusation "Call yourself a feminist" is repeated and dissected, has given up his job as a solicitor to "help" with the care of their daughters, while the author pays the bills – and the nanny. She tells us that she wanted to deny her husband shared custody, and felt outraged at being legally obliged to support him financially. This is what feminists sign up for, and her honesty has won her few allies.
Cusk is no stranger to controversy, having published A Life's Work, an eloquent account of how, as she says in Aftermath, "I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly." This charge of narcissism is unintentionally comical in that every experience, from having a tooth extracted to Cusk's daughters' hamsters' inability to live together, is turned into another metaphor for the author's anguish.
Nor does her prized objectivity protect her from "surprise" at the realisation that her husband hated her for instigating their separation. Yet her pain at the wound she has dealt her daughters is genuinely lacerating. She does love her daughters; a reader questions whether, despite her accounts of trying to maintain normality, she loves them enough.
Cusk is particularly prone to all the novelist's diseases – grandiloquence, egocentricity, and the need for control – and these do not make her an especially trustworthy or agreeable guide into the wilder shores of the human heart. Yet she also has the novelist's saving graces – honesty, courage, and the ability to depict her experiences in exquisitely crafted language. When she tells us that "my sins will not devour me but will be dutifully paid off over a lifetime in small increments, like a mortgage," the discerning reader treasures her. Her exacting, cerebral treatment of such a highly-charged subject is what makes it of literary value, revealing how one of the pitfalls of modern family life remains "the human need for war."
If the Iranians, whose reputation is almost as toxic, can win their first Oscar by portraying the break-up of a family in A Separation, Cusk is free to do the same. Part of the unease is that her experience is not mediated through fiction, and therefore involves people – especially children – who did not sign up to being players in a writer's family drama.
Ultimately, she seems to blame the "authority" of marriage as an institution rather than her husband or herself. The prurient will be disappointed, and the distressed, unenlightened. The concern for her fans is to what degree she has cannibalised herself as an artist.
Right at the end there is a short story, "Trains", showing how some of the events described in the book through the eyes of an au pair. It's a sad reminder that an author of Cusk's calibre is more true to themselves when examining the lives of others.
Amanda Craig's latest novel, 'Hearts and Minds', is published by AbacusReuse content