Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

In 2001 Rachel Cusk wrote a memoir called A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. When this first came out I thought I might like it, an intelligent, educated woman’s take on the transition to motherhood. Then I read more reviews that put me off: who wants to read about colic, I thought, so I gave that one a pass.

In 2006 Cusk wrote Arlington Park, a novel about suburban motherhood, and I was interested to see what she might do with the same subject, but in another vein. Arlington Park is a suburb of London, and for Cusk it operates like a little laboratory where all these mothers are penned up together, and Cusk is the mad scientist who observes them for one day in their lives. It rains, and the children are cranky. The mothers pass the time with coffee and shopping. They are bored, angry, hostile. Their husbands are distant, and disconnected. By the end of the book I couldn’t tell one mother from another, but I think Cusk does that on purpose.

This is a depressing book, but also fascinating, especially if you are a mother. She captures so perfectly the madness that sometimes accompanies motherhood: the claustrophia, the impotence, the tiny rages, the paralysis, the feeling of isolation, the sense that nothing matters but everything matters, and she does so in perfectly wrought, microscopically detailed prose. A trip to the shopping mall is described in faultless detail, down to the plants that surround the fountain and the sound of the air filtration system. This might sound boring, but it isn’t, thought it also isn’t always pleasant to read. The women’s ambivalence toward their children is presented with shocking honesty. But I know that I am not the only mother who read this and remembered the days that I used to fantasize about just getting in my car and driving away.

Here are reviews from the Guardian of both A Life’s Work and Arlington Park. James Lasdan, writing about Arlington Park, takes a more dispassionate approach than I was able to: Cusk’s scenes evoked feelings for me that were too raw and fresh to enable to me to think critically about the book as a whole.

(Book 3, 2008)


heather (errantdreams) said...

Sounds like a fascinating pair of books; I expect if I were a mother I'd be quite tempted to go out and read them.

Anonymous said...

I was a bit ambivalent about this book. I liked the story of the teacher, Juliet, and her Literary Club but I just didn't relate to some of these 'have it all' women.

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