Rachel Cusk’s new novel conjures myriad acts of creation – of lives and of art. It explores the violence creation entails and the possibilities it opens. Her twelfth novel, Parade is concerned with artists, with mothers and children, and with place: material, psychological, historical, cosmic.

This is familiar terrain. But, as ever with Cusk’s writing in all its forms – fiction, memoir, essay – she renders the familiar strange in ways that force us to see it anew. Perhaps this is the best way to describe, or to recognise, the operations of art in a world continually in the throes of collapse and transmutation. It’s certainly the way Cusk presents the work of “G” at the outset of this novel:

At a certain point in his career the artist G, perhaps because he could find no other way to make sense of his time and place in history, began to paint upside down. At first sight the paintings looked as though they had been hung the wrong way round by mistake, but then the signature emblazoned in the bottom right-hand corner clearly heralded the advent of a new reality. His wife believed that with this development he had inadvertently expressed something disturbing about the female condition […]

The disturbance of G’s paintings is echoed in Parade’s form. Defined on its title page as a novel, it appears to be four interlinked fragments, all narrated in different voices. It seems to eradicate even the ghost of the narrative throughline that haunted Cusk’s Outline trilogy (2014-2018) and Second Place (2021), all acts of ventriloquism that refused the novel’s conventional bonds of plot and character development. Which amounts to refusing the binding narrative of romance.

If the Outline trilogy imploded the traditional novel form, constellating the world through the perceiving and yet mysteriously absent “I” of its narrator, Faye, then Parade explodes it into a series of shattered accounts – with no governing narrative voice or perceiver.

The chapter titles suggest hidden identities, fluent spaces: “The Stuntman”, “The Midwife”, “The Diver” and “The Spy”. All contain double narratives, except “The Diver”. They map various experiences of embodiment and so of perspective, especially as they diverge between women and men. This difference is amplified by the fact of women’s ability to contain, gestate and birth new humans. This power is both unique to women and ubiquitous, invisible and iconic.

What if this life-creating woman should also be an artist?

The artist-mother

In an essay on Louise Bourgeois in her 2019 essay collection, Coventry, Cusk opens with an axiomatic statement about “the artist”, from which she unfolds an Escheresque claim about the artist-mother:

The artist is a person in whom there has been no caesura with the creativity of childhood: how, then, will she herself become a mother? For the artist is a perceiver, and the mother the first and fundamental object of perception, the first image, the Madonna of earliest Christian iconography. What will the outcome be when these two identities – perceiver and perceived – become one?

Parade is an extended meditation on this conundrum.

It features several creators who are designated artists, six of whom are denoted by the letter “G”. (For god? Genius? the novel suggests.) Their art and lives as portrayed by Cusk suggest “real” artists. German painter and sculptor Georg Baselitz and painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, Louise Bourgeois, African American social realist Norman Lewis, British painter Cecily Brown and French photographer and filmmaker Chris Marker all come to mind. It also contains many creators who are mothers, four of whom are artist-mothers.

The first thread of “The Stuntman” is seen mostly through the eyes of G’s wife: “When G’s wife first saw the upside down paintings she felt as though she had been hit.”

This hit replicates itself in the second thread, narrated by a woman who has recently moved to Paris. She resembles Cusk, who relocated to Paris from the coast of Norfolk during the pandemic.

Walking along a sunny street one morning, she’s hit in the head by a stranger. This blow forces something new upon her. She realises her experiences which were “consequences in one way or another of my biological femininity” had somehow been carried by an invisible part of her:

an alternate or double self whose role it was to absorb and confine them so that they played no part in the ongoing story of life. Like a kind of stuntman, this alternate self took the actual risks in the manufacture of a fictional being whose exposure to danger was supposedly fundamental to its identity.

“The Midwife” opens with artist G, who at 22 had run away from her parents to a city where she lived in her studio, consumed by painting. But her subsequent success elicits “a husband and child, and money that needed to be converted into material things”, and divorces her from herself in ways that are chilling.

The section’s second thread unfolds on a farm on a Mediterranean island. It portrays the tensions between the daily labours of maintaining a household, keeping a kitchen and garden, and a lofty vision of a communal paradise untethered from the outside world. Despite its beauty, this is a macabre and menacing place, which Cusk evokes with breathtaking vibrancy:

There was mystery in the winding shadow of the wooded ravines and in the rippling reed beds on the plains beside the sea, and up on the hills the obscure forms of giant white boulders seemed to stare out at the piercing blue water. Behind them rose the mountain, with its jagged white head flung madly into the sky. Its white-and-silver surfaces stood bare and unassailable, the colossal shape not sloping but cuboid, composed of innumerable facets that flashed from its sides like the sun.

The third section, “The Diver”, is a single episode voiced by a “we” narrator. It takes place at a faux Italian restaurant in a city resembling Berlin, in the aftermath of a parade and a shocking event at a museum hosting an exhibition of work by sculptor G. It recounts a conversation over dinner between experts on G’s work who were due to speak at a conference about G, which has been cancelled. They’re unexpectedly joined by a man who contributes his own compelling story to the mix.

“The Spy” cuts between a narration by children of a dead mother and an account of the filmmaker G, which opens with his mother. He has adopted a pseudonym to hide from her. But regardless of his mother, we’re told he would not have been able to create his films “in the guise of himself”.

The result of these multiple threads is a work of astonishing, mesmerising complexity and ambiguity, refracted through seven guiding narrative voices. This number corresponds to the seven colours said to comprise a rainbow. But this is a misconception we’ve inherited from Isaac Newton, whose claim to have seen seven colours in refracted light was governed not by scientific accuracy, but by his belief in the mystical properties of the number seven.

Given Cusk’s fascination with fractured truths and shattered illusions, and the recurrence of waves, frequencies, light and vision in her metaphors and forms, this seems relevant. It also evokes the landmark novel of one of Cusk’s chief literary antecedents, DH Lawrence. In her introduction to Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915), she writes:

Lawrence’s grasp on what kind of future [the advent of urban modernity] implies for men and women, for society, for the earth itself, is extraordinarily complex and prescient. And the “re-adjustment of the old relation” between the sexes is an evolution in which we remain embroiled […]

Parade operates in this vein. It charts these critical, world-shaping relational readjustments, condensing entire histories in its scant 200 pages. It is riveting; like being caught in the many sticky threads of a spider (an image which recurs) woven together in a tight syntactical logic which is nevertheless spacious, moves and breathes, is particle and wave, like matter itself.

Ferocious, broken-hearted intelligence

From its icy distance, Cusk’s prose conveys with ferocious intelligence and immediacy the warm (and broken) heart of her experience as a cosmopolitan European woman voraciously interested in listening to and recording in her art the many utterances of living.

Of all the episodes in Parade, the concluding section is the most eye-opening, especially the thread narrated by the peculiarly singular – yet composite – voice of the children of the dead and ever-present mother. Midway they announce: “Suddenly we could not tolerate capitalism […] Was our mother a function of capitalism?”

This recalls Cusk’s discussion of Madame Bovary in her memoir A Life’s Work (2001): “Motherhood for Emma Bovary is an alias, an identity she occasionally assumes in her career as an adulterer.” And so her daughter Berthe grows up unloved:

She is her mother’s blighted product, her abandoned project. She does not bear the hallmark, the authoritative stamp of maternal love. She fades away into the darkness.

But the children of the unloving mother who conclude Parade do not fade into darkness. Something new happens. A shattering, or relocation, which amounts to a release.

In conversation with Sheila Heti in 2018, Cusk said:

I felt I lived through womanhood in the most basic and indeed arduous ways and now I don’t feel gendered. And I’m interested in knowing what is after gender. I suppose I see it as a blankness of spirituality ahead of me and I’m interested to know what’s in it.

It this what is in it? An entire cosmos in the throes of transmutation and recreation? Parade is Cusk’s most formidable, radical and compelling novel yet. It enacts its own words: “Art is a pact of individuals denying society the last word.”

Parade, Rachel Cusk, Faber and Faber.

Jane Gleeson-White is an Adjunct Lecturer of English and Creative Writing at the UNSW Canberra and UNSW Sydney.
This article first appeared on
The Conversation.