Tuesday 12 December 2017

Break-ups: Women caught in wreckage of love

Emma Forest
Emma Forest

Ann-Marie Scanlon

There's a mountain of misery here about three women trying to cope with the pain of a break-up, but they also supply plenty of hope, writes Anne Marie Scanlon.

MISERY Lit, first person memoirs of real-life drama and tragedy, became a publishing phenomenon in the past decade. Those who found the prototype of the genre, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, hard going in 1996 would probably find it Disneyesque in comparison to the traumatic tales of childhood sexual, physical and mental abuse that now abound on bookshelves.

On the surface, the current memoirs by Emma Forrest, Margaret Overton and Rachel Cusk ostensibly all sound like fairly typical Misery Lit. Cusk and Overton deal primarily with life after the break-up of a long-term relationship and the effects divorce can have on a person's mental, physical and emotional state. Cusk sums the emotions up quite well when she says, "Grief is not love ... (It) is romance's estranged cousin, all sleeplessness and adrenaline unsweetened by hope."

Forrest, too, has known her fair share of bad break-ups along with suicide attempts, self-harm and eating disorders. So far, so depressing -- you would think. Instead, Forrest's book, despite the often gloomy and disturbing subject matter is, ironically, far from depressing as Your Voice in my Head is actually a love story -- two love stories in fact. One love story concerns her relationship with a famous movie star (referred to in the book as GH (Gypsy Husband) but a quick visit to the internet will tell you it's Colin Farrell) which ended peremptorily and for Forrest, disastrously. The book is also an extended love letter, (containing a series of love letters from others) to her therapist Dr R, who died suddenly aged 53.

When Forrest meets GH she describes him as looking like "the world's campest terrorist". They begin an intense relationship and when Forrest tells her sister that she's seeing someone that she would probably consider inappropriate, her sister replies, "Not Russell Brand? Tell me it's not Russell Brand." Forrest and GH stay together for a very fervent year. He wants to have a child and goes so far as to buy a coat for 'Pearl', the daughter they are planning to have. Then, a few hours after calling her and telling her he's looking forward to the rest of their life together, GH abruptly breaks off the relationship.

You have to hand it to Forrest, she is painfully honest about her life, her relationships and her failures. She doesn't gloss over her own painful behaviour in the midst of heartbreak. This is a wholly fascinating and compulsive book -- not just because of the glimpse it gives the reader into the odd world of movies and stars. (I particularly liked the fact that GH hits the lean cuisine when he needs to lose weight for a role.) Even if there were no high- profile names mentioned here, this would still be an utterly absorbing read. Forrest is a wonderful writer and highly entertaining without ever trivialising the underlying serious issues.

Cusk's memoir on the break-up of her 10-year marriage was eagerly anticipated by both ordinary readers and critics alike as her last memoir A Life's Work (2001) created a huge amount of controversy by revealing the darker side of modern motherhood. Like motherhood, marriages have a different reality in public than in private, as Cusk says, "Most marriages have a public face as the body has its skin". Humans, despite what we may claim, are totally fascinated by the private dynamics of other's relationships, a point that Cusk neatly sums up by saying that "a couple arguing in public is like a body bleeding". Despite the promise of these insights, anyone expecting Cusk to blow apart the marital myth in the same way that she did about childbirth and motherhood will be bitterly disappointed. While Cusk wrote with searing and unsparing honesty about her experience of becoming a mother, the circumstances of the breakdown of her marriage remain clouded in mystery. She writes of the 'aftermath' without any reference to the event, so there is no context for the reader and therefore her narrative is like faraway wisps of smoke over a bonfire no one can see; and, let's face it, we want to see the fire not the smoke.

After reading Aftermath I know that Rachel Cusk knows a lot about Greek mythology and has had a painful tooth extraction. I do not know why, or how, her relationship with her second husband and father of her two daughters failed. Without knowing those very relevant facts, it made this a very frustrating read.

At one point Cusk refers to herself as "an outcast from marriage", a state that Margaret Overton, author of Good in a Crisis, would no doubt recognise. After being married for more than two decades Overton feels that being single is like being an outcast. Overton, an anaesthetist by profession, is far more cut and dried than Cusk in her approach to detailing the breakdown of her marriage. "The signs were all there. He fit not just the classical picture of a cheating husband but the non-classical one, the neoclassical one, you name it."

Despite the grim subject matter (Overton suffers two brain aneurisms in quick succession) Good in a Crisis reads like good chick-lit with the narrative zipping along. In a panic about being single at 44, Overton hits Match.com and starts dating with a vengeance. "Up popped 20 (yes 20) pages of men. It was like the Home Shopping Network, only better -- a weirdly attractive combination of shopping, Modern Romance, and voyeurism, without any calories or shipping choices." Her dates are dreadful, each suitor even worse than the last -- if you read about these guys in a work of fiction you'd accuse the author of being ridiculously unrealistic.

"I was a disaster. I know that now. And yet I kept going out there, meeting man after man, trying to make everyone like me, using no judgment whatsoever, in the hope that someone would want me again. People going through a divorce are crazy."

Unfortunately for Overton her dating disasters aren't contained to men with "brown teeth" or a (literally) "wandering eye"; she is date-raped. The rape leaves her shell-shocked and numb. For a long time she is unable to tell anyone what happened but when "I finally started to talk about it, the ubiquity of the experience, among women, old and young, among gay men, shocked me beyond belief." (And if proof were needed about this ubiquity (which it isn't) Your Voice in my Head also recalls the time Emma Forrest was raped by someone she knew.) Despite Overton's bitter divorce, horrific experiences with men and her health issues, the book is upbeat and optimistic -- "I feel more positive than I have in years about life and about men, well enough to begin to let hope triumph over experience".

Yes, there's plenty of misery in these three books, but far more important there's plenty of hope.

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