Suburban motherhood is no picnic in this latest examination of intertwined lives from British novelist Cusk (The Lucky Ones, 2004, etc.).
The action takes place during a single rainy day in a well-pruned English suburb. But though its streets are tree-lined, its shops exclusive, its houses ranging from pretty to grand, Arlington Park is not entirely sheltered from the problems of the world. While dropping their older children at school and toting their toddlers around on errands, the no-longer-so-young mothers worry about impoverished gypsies, people dying of malnutrition, earthquake victims in Indonesia, ecological destruction and the four-year-old girl abducted from their own prosperous enclave. (She’s found dead toward the end, a dénouement in keeping with the novel’s generally dark tone.) Is there something they should do about these unpleasant realities? How can they help anyone else, when they feel so helplessly adrift themselves? In previous fiction, and in her poignant memoir A Life’s Work (2001), Cusk sensitively balanced an honest depiction of parenting’s often overwhelming demands with tender acknowledgment of its joys. In this book, children are nearly always a burden, husbands prompt little besides bitterness and the one protagonist who’s still working finds her job as a schoolteacher mostly a reminder of the intellectual ambitions she failed to fulfill. As usual with this deft and astute writer, the prose is elegant, the characterizations spot-on. Frustrated Juliet, obsessive Amanda, conflicted city transplant Maisie, pregnant-yet-again Solly and in particular angrily exuberant, confrontational Christine are wholly believable and uncomfortably familiar. Such is the author’s skill that few readers will be able to escape a sense of squirming empathy for these women’s frequent bouts of self-pity and vertiginous feeling of not being in control of their relatively privileged lives. The sour aftertaste their stories leave, however, is a new development in Cusk’s work—and not a welcome one.
Accomplished, honest and uncompromising, but not a whole lot of fun.