Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones

Few books have the power to make you want to turn to the stranger sitting next to you on a train or in a coffee shop and say, “Here, you have to read this.” Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones is that kind of book. Told from the point of view of five different characters, Cusk’s incisive prose takes you inside the heads of people haunted by their relationships with children. In “Confinement,” the opening story, Kristy, a pregnant inmate who is likely innocent of the arson charges against her, spends the last few hours before her delivery wrestling with the prospect of a life spent away from her baby.

She made herself small. For a moment she herself was the baby and the child inside her took on a strange authority, the primacy of an unlived life. It seemed to her then almost as if the baby had the power to free her from herself. In this small room where the light behind the bars wore the sad pallor of a winter afternoon, of a day slipping by unlived, untasted, in this place where everything existed in a single dimension of fact, it was a miracle that this transference was possible.

Kristy’s case takes a turn for the worse when her lawyer, Victor, hands over her files to a young, indifferent associate, Jane. Jane makes an appearance in “The Way You Do It,” the story of two couples, a single woman, and a new father, all dealing with parenthood–desired or sidelined, fulfilled or wanting. Cusk is masterful in her nuanced examination of how a new baby has changed the lives of the yuppies in the story, particularly Martin, the new father.

It should have made no difference but it did — in his chest there was the feeling of a gash opening, a scar that he saw would never mend, because no matter how carefully he stitched it up it lay across a part of himself whose motion was fundamental. Now that the baby had come his life would be lived against a mounting force of limitation.

The next story, “The Sacrifices,” is told in the first-person and concerns two filial relationships: the narrator and her mother, and the narrator and her husband’s son from a previous relationship. In “Mrs Daley’s Daughter,” the reader is again introduced to Josephine, one of the women in the skiing party, who comes home to visit her mother after having a baby, but there is no comfort from the meeting. And in “Matters of Life and Death,” we witness a husband and wife’s difficult adjustment to the baby in their lives.
Cusk’s view of parenthood, devoid of the customary saccharine, is rather bleak and, for some people, also quite authentic. Her prose slices through each family portrait, revealing insights sometimes dimly perceived but never fully exposed. I know it’s still early in the year, but this collection (or novel, if you believe the cover) is my favorite so far.