Cusk is repelled by the “Catholic gigantism” she encounters in the architecture of Assisi and St. Peter’s, as I am. She remembers how, as a young person, she was also intimidated by the church’s “spiritual bureaucrats with their rules and regulations” and by the shame Catholicism seemed to spread over much of human desire. Amen. “But now,” she confesses, “I found the Christian story all human, like literature; it was a long time since it had been raised as a weapon over my head.” In a similar vein, she takes the measure of Raphael as a painter. His pious Madonnas are just “sweet, beautiful recollections of childhood.” They “lacked the very thing that makes the Mona Lisa seem to smile: mystery.”
On the topic of Italian food she is iconoclastic. “The Italian diet proceeds on the basis that isolation is the natural condition of a foodstuff,” she complains. “Nothing is hidden behind anything else. The tomato is one entity; the olive another…. To introduce one foodstuff to another represents a whole level of culinary attainment; it is a kind of marriage, inviolable, and hence requiring the utmost care to arrange.” Perhaps.
The family’s time away from England—strangely, her husband and children are never mentioned by name—ends in a surreal encounter at a country house in France. Next to the house where they have reserved rooms is a barn filled with eerily lifelike mannequins. Having been coaxed into the barn, the children retreat in fear. Coming face to face with the barn’s elderly and taciturn female creator and proprietor, Cusk perceives “the soul of the artist open briefly before me like a chasm and disclose its dark and pagan power.” The woman’s macabre obsession with the arrangement of seemingly human-sized dolls is perhaps a reflection of the author’s own ambitions.
That dark power seems to be one of Cusk’s gifts, or burdens. In Aftermath, she never explicitly discusses the reasons her husband demanded a divorce. Instead, she fearlessly reports that he thought she had treated him “monstrously,” and describes how “the first time I saw my husband after our separation I realized, to my surprise, that he hated me. I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was filled up with something that was not himself, contaminated by it. Like a coastline painted black by an oil spill. For months black poisonous hatred had flowed from the fatal wound to our marriage, flowed through every source and outlet, soaked into everything.”
What she does write about at length is her determination, as an ardent feminist, to pursue what she calls her “male” ambitions as a writer. That could only be achieved if the marriage was built on a strict understanding of equality. In pursuit of that goal, her husband left his job as a lawyer to mind the children and take over many of the domestic chores. But the division of labor was never really equal, and the deeply ingrained expectations of how fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, should relate to each other proved impossible to escape. Cusk surprisingly confesses that “I had hated my husband’s unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother’s; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot.” His willingness to give up the traditional male role of wage-earner was not, it seemed to her, a manifestation of equality but of dependence: “And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes.”
Cusk shows how her ideal of equality in marriage failed under the demands of childrearing, but never really questions that ideal as a foundation for marriage, or any other personal relationship. People bring different talents and strengths to every enterprise. One partner may bring an intimidating serve while the other is good at the net or with the volley. Any successful partnership or team is not made up of equal parts, but of various yet complementary parts. To succeed, the whole must be more than the sum of the individuals involved. It is not equality but respect, loyalty, and affection that are the basis of any lasting relationship.
Cusk seems to acknowledge as much, if only in passing. Visiting her long-widowed grandmother, she ponders the difference between her own understanding of marriage as a “bondage” and that of her grandmother, who never seemed to contemplate remarriage: “It never occurred to me either that she might have remained alone out of loyalty to the familial enterprise…but continued to play her part for the sake of her children; that she might have understood, as I did not, that the jigsaw is frail, not strong, is a mirage, not a prison. It is not to dismantle but to conserve it that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant.”