Cusk's 'Lucky Ones': Motherhood, darkly

March 07, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,Sun Staff

The Lucky Ones, by Rachel Cusk. Fourth Estate. 240 pages. $24.95.

The naked truth about parenthood -- stripped of all its pleasures and precious moments -- isn't pretty. In this haunting new work, British talent Rachel Cusk (winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award) lays bare the lives of new mothers, fathers and grandparents. Billed as a novel, the book is more a collection of short stories -- loosely linked by a few forlorn characters and the overriding themes of isolation, anxiety and strained relationships. As a whole, these stories present a painfully bleak picture of parenthood, one that risks offending readers uncomfortable -- or unfamiliar -- with its darker side. But Cusk writes well, making it difficult to abandon this troubling little book.

The Lucky Ones opens with the story of Kirsty, a young, pregnant woman imprisoned for a crime of passion. From her small cell, Kirsty imagines her unborn child as her saving grace: "The baby had protected her ... from the greater imperative to rebuild what her sentence knocked down: her value." The tale is fleeting -- a mere 26 pages -- but its stomach-turning details (including a birth in the back of a police car) have a lasting effect that sets the tone for what's to come.

There is Martin, a new father fleeing his wife and newborn daughter on a ski trip in the Alps. Martin justifies his escape by reminding himself that despite his protests, his wife decided to have a child. Even at the moment of his baby's birth, Martin thinks the unthinkable -- that she is an unwanted burden. Holding the squirming child in his arms, he recalls feeling "oppressed by her need and by his sense that an onerous job had fallen to him by virtue of his being there awake while her mother slept."

Later in the book, we meet Vanessa, a mother of two whose husband is appallingly disengaged. Despite her love for her two young boys, Vanessa feels resentful and trapped in the daily tedium of motherhood. One day, while her husband is at work and her children throw a temper tantrum, she comes temporarily unglued: "A fork in the road appeared before Vanessa's eyes. The hitting stabbed at her; violent feelings seeped hotly from the wound. She saw herself throwing the coat across the room, as clearly as she saw the other, peaceful route." Perhaps the most engaging of Cusk's stories is that of Mrs. Daley, an interfering grandmother confronted with her daughter's postnatal despair. Although it is at times difficult to read, the story is a testament to Cusk's honesty -- her desire to bring to light what few of us want to see. In this story, Mrs. Daley's daughter, Josephine, suffers from a bout of depression after the birth of her daughter -- taking to bed for several days, sleeping and sobbing. Although Cusk deserves praise for frankness, The Lucky Ones suffers some from its continual spiral of sadness -- one that weighs so heavily that the few joyous moments spring from the page.

In the character of Vanessa, Cusk writes about what the beleaguered mother calls the "gold" moments of parenthood: "sometimes, she and the other mothers she knew confessed these moments to one another, shyly, as they might have confessed their feelings about men, which had once passed through the prism incident in much the same way, that is, briefly but to profound effect."

The book might have been made more palatable -- more pleasant -- if Cusk had offered up a few more of those precious moments. Instead, it seems she made a conscious decision to offer only the despair -- a sentiment she is so skilled at conveying that the book seduces readers in its beautiful, disquieting spiral. A word of advice to new or expecting mothers: Take Cusk's journey at your own risk.

Molly Knight is a reporter in The Sun's Annapolis bureau and former assistant to the books editor. Before joining The Sun, she wrote for publications including The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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