Five interconnected tales from Whitbread-winner Cusk (The Country Life, 1999, etc.), centered on the fraught bonds between parents and children.
The currently fashionable tactic of unifying a short-story collection by loosely relating the characters can seem like a gimmick, but Cusk weaves her tapestry ever-tighter toward a climax that will send readers back to the earlier sections to marvel at the subtle artistry that has planted throughout seeds that bear full fruit only at the end. She begins, in the sardonically titled “Confinement,” with a pregnant woman in an English jail, convicted of murder and faced with the prospect of losing her baby once she gives birth. The scene shifts in “The Way You Do It” to the Alps, where an ill-assorted group are on a skiing holiday that only underscores the ambivalence of the three characters who are new parents. “I mean, I love them and everything,” says one, “but sometimes I think, God, whatever happened to our life?” The protagonist of “The Sacrifices,” pressured by her previously married husband to forego having a child, realizes too late she’s been psychologically abused by him as she was by her mother. The glancing connections among the characters only truly make sense in the superb two stories that close the collection: the terrifying “Mrs. Daley’s Daughter,” with its mordant view inside the head of a monstrous mother who always thinks she’s the one being hurt; and the keening “Matters of Life and Death,” in which an overwhelmed young woman whose husband wanted a stay-at-home wife and mother sees him turn around and say, “This family thing. Six years. Six years . . . I’m dying.” A neighbor who writes a feminist newspaper column about raising children and her dying husband, a crusading lawyer, provide the thematic link that ties it all together with an emotional wallop all the more devastating for being rendered in Cusk’s quiet, understated prose, with its delicately detailed rendering of the ebb and flow of human thought and feeling. In particular, her portrait of mothers’ deeply conflicted attitudes toward their young children perfectly captures the primal love and the despairing sense of total inadequacy in the face of their all-consuming demands.
Absolutely brilliant, and deeply moving.