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Parade by Rachel Cusk: Daring and discombobulating

Stories, observations and conversations overlap in this mind-bending book

Rachel Cusk: the tension between art and motherhood is a theme in her work. Photograph: Siemon Scamell-Katz
Author: Rachel Cusk
ISBN-13: 9780571377947
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £16.99

“It occurred to G that there might exist a second G, a G who did not work.” In Rachel Cusk’s mind-bending, identity-eliding new book Parade, expect to meet a variety of Gs, each loosely connected, all of them artists, of different genders, races, eras. The overlapping stories, observations, conversations amount to a “carousel of lives”, as the press material notes, but because Cusk is the author it’s the kind of carousel where the magic horses come to life and frequently devour the riders.

The tone of Parade is one we’ve come to associate with her later work: exacting, insightful and brutally unsentimental. The themes of her acclaimed Outline trilogy and her non-fiction are to the fore once more, specifically, the tension between art and motherhood, the difficulty, or impossibility, of equality in relationships between men and women, the identities people assume over the course of their lives, which work to estrange them from others and ultimately to weaken their grasp on reality itself.

Cusk is known for her efforts to portray life as it happens or, to quote Philip Roth, life before the narrative takes over. In Parade she looks to expand on this with a cacophony of voices, a profile of lives across the ages. “Perhaps if I told my story again, it would be completely different,” someone says towards the end, a neat encapsulation of the book as a whole.

Lives are still pinned down and wriggling on the page, exposed through the author’s searing, inimitable style, but these individual outlines are strengthened by the grander, collective idea of eternal recurrence, where all of life has already happened and will happen again and again to infinity. Impossible not to think of the work of Milan Kundera in this respect; the comparison holds for Cusk’s use of the surreal and the sense of depth that is cumulatively achieved through her brightly detailed anecdotes and, of course, her swift assassinations.


On the dangers, for women, of marrying a fellow artist: “A male artist wants a slave, and when he marries a woman artist he gets the bonus of a slave who thinks he’s a genius.” On marriage generally: “The ageing bourgeois couple trapped unto death in their godless and voluntary bondage is the pedestrian offspring of history.” On the intractability of traumatic childhoods: “The way her parents had combined authority with neglect had made it impossible for her to free herself from them,” which left me thinking of the Anne Enright line, that there is nothing as vicious as blood.

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Parade isn’t all biting synopses and disgruntlement. The Diver, the third of four sections, features the dinner party conversation of a group of intellectuals and artists following a postponed opening of a seminal exhibition of, you guessed it, the artist known as G. Accounting for just over a quarter of the book, it is a joyously rich discussion on the themes mentioned above, a manifesto for different ways of living, each of them valid and interesting.

The other three sections – The Stuntman, The Midwife and The Spy – report from the front lines of alternating lives, among them, a woman attacked by a stranger on a Parisian street, as happened to Cusk; a male artist named G who paints the world upside down (recalling the German artist Georg Baselitz); a woman artist named G who yearns for her less successful years, before she was married to a monstrous lawyer; a narcissistic mother and the adult children who find unexpected freedoms in her death.

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The role assigned to women historically in art, as muse or object, is fiercely interrogated. After having her portrait painted by her husband, a wife feels “realised in her role as a repository for weakness ... something had been appropriated from her”. Even when the genders are reversed in a later passage, the husband remains in control: “The days when he claimed to know nothing about art were far behind him. He had mastered her life as he would have a legal brief.” The addition of children only makes the power imbalance more extreme, more unfair: “The artist who is also a mother must leave the moment in order to access a moment of a very different nature, and each time she does it a cost is exacted.”

The cost of living would make a great title for this book, if it hadn’t already been taken by Cusk’s contemporary Deborah Levy. Parade will do just as well for this daring, unsettling novel that is, much like life itself, discombobulating, hard to get into, and equally hard to forget. So roll up, wave a flag and join the crowds to watch Rachel Cusk continue her relentless march through life.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts