‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Rachel Cusk

Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, since Aftermath is a memoir, not a collection of stories. But most of its pieces can stand alone, granted that they all share the premise of depicting events involving Cusk and her daughters after her marriage fell apart. In ‘The Razor’s Edge’, Cusk retreats to the countryside with the two girls, striking out for “a picturesque country town near Dartmoor” only to end up in a run-down B&B, “a dank-smelling labyrinth of corridors”. Her aim is to make time to write the book she’s working on, while the two girls are out taking horse-riding lessons. But she hasn’t reckoned on the woman she calls “the witch”. The witch is the owner of the B&B, a one-legged intruder who wears “rainbow-coloured draperies in chiffon and velvet” and moves around on “a pair of crutches strapped to her arms… with which she occasionally gestures, [as if they are] the forelegs of some gigantic insect.” She’s a writer, too, although she publishes pseudonymously, and she’s thrilled to have someone like Cusk in her house. First, though, the witch displaces Cusk and the girls from their rented room because it is needed by another family — a real, intact family, not a family riven by divorce — and then, to make amends, she offers them refuge in her private home, a hovel of broken furniture and rot. Needless to say, Cusk doesn’t manage to do any writing there. She can’t even summon the words to excuse herself from the witch’s presence. She flees silently, under cover of darkness, and after escaping she stumbles across one of the witch’s novels. Reading the novel gives her a new and heartbreaking understanding of the woman she maligned, and reveals vast reservoirs of pain beneath the woman’s bullyish impositions. One writer has many words to write but no opportunity to compose herself; the other has composed herself in the flesh so as to mask the words she writes under a false identity. Neither woman easily inhabits the world, and ‘The Razor’s Edge’ records the way they overlap on the page despite the distance between them in life.

From Aftermath, Faber 2012)