So I’m doing something a little different this week. My mum has written a guest review of a book she read last week. As you will gather from what you are about to read, she had quite an intense reaction to it, and so I asked her to write a review! Here it is:
This has been hovering on the edge of my radar for a while, mainly because it’s set in Bristol, and I had a vague memory that lots of people who knew the author felt they’d been unfairly portrayed in the book and wrote angry letters about it. I can see why: my first draft of this review was written in a frenzy of loathing towards the book – my original one-liner review was “undiluted hatred in every overwritten line.”
Then I had one of those epiphany moments – and I decided to try and rein in my hate and not add to the sum of unpleasantness on the internet, if I can help it.
Instead I’m going to go all shrinky on you, and think about the hate I felt, because I think it’s a response to the angry hate that the author feels.
I read this book because it’s somewhat infamous, because it’s set in Bristol, because it describes motherhood. I carried on reading it because I had to understand what was going on. I had to get a sense of why Cusk was doing what she was doing.
Set in a barely-disguised Bristol, the novel spans a single day in the life of a collection of stay-at-home mothers living in a nice middle-class area of Bristol (I’m thinking Westbury/Redland/Henleaze). Nothing really happens – there’s a coffee morning, some of the women go to the Mall (Cribbs Causeway), in the evening there’s a dinner at one of their houses. The point-of-view goes from one woman to the other. To be fair, it’s not about plot. It’s about writing, the interior worlds of the women, and I contend that it is mainly about the author.
Things I liked/admired
I started off enjoying the rhythms of the prose and even the vocabulary. It is actually readable, despite being written to impress. Two or three lines made me laugh, unfortunately can’t remember which. I liked that she has tried to capture something of the essence of boredom, loneliness and agonized love that can be the experience of looking after small children, especially in bad weather. After a while I also started to enjoy my hatred of the book.
What I think is going on here:
This section should be called ‘things I didn’t like’ but I’m going to restrain myself and try to understand.
I think the crucial thing about this novel is Cusk’s position. Not all authors have an obvious position, often you’re simply not aware of the author at all. In this book you can’t not be aware. What comes over so powerfully, and what I think is part of what inspired my frenzy of hate, is Cusk’s own hatred.
She is an outsider. She writes from a position of alienation and depression, where she looks at the business of life going on around her and knows that she is other, knows that she is excluded, and reacts with envious hatred towards what she sees. She is a forensic and judgemental observer of clothes and bodies. There is no friendliness towards her characters, no fellow feeling. The people she writes about are caricatures, a collection of external features from which she extrapolates, imagining their inner worlds, which she sees as full of grievance, indifference and/or callous entitlement. This goes for the ‘chavs’ at the Mall, the commuters driving uncaringly past with their suits hanging in their cars, and the mothers. Despite the detailed chronicling of the mothers’ thoughts, they are still caricatures – Cusk is purporting to create a number of separate people, but is in fact writing again and again about herself, to the point where all the women start to blend into each other and I could no longer tell them apart. They are all expressing in slightly different ways a terrible loneliness, a coldness, a joylessness.
I think this is Cusk herself. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that I imagine there was something cold, joyless, unempathic and mean in her own early experience. She has too intimate a knowledge of the casual, blaming cruelty that a desperate mother is capable of.
Is she more to be pitied than censured? I don’t know. It’s hard to feel for someone who writes from an internal position of sneering superiority. It’s a narcissistic solution to the problem of emotional pain: unfortunately it repels rather than invites.
Should you read this book?
Though I’ve tried to understand a little more and judge a little less, I did hate this book, and I hated the author as I read it. That’s quite a strong reaction and I’ve tried to make sense of it. I guess my conclusion is that hate begets hate, and that Cusk’s stylised scorn provokes a wish in me to retaliate and crush. Basically, why does she have to be so unrelievedly nasty?
So I don’t know if you should read this book, but I wish you would, so that you can tell me how you reacted to it.
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The Book Depository
You can buy the book here: http://www.bookdepository.com/Arlington-Park-Rachel-Cusk/9780571228485/?a_aid=SpidersLibrary
Because I am trying not to use Amazon in my own half-arsed protest-y way, I’d like to recommend to people that they check out The Book Depository, which is a great, user-friendly site with affordable books ranging from brand new releases to classics, and in many different editions at less-than brand new prices. As I am now officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.