From Rachel Cusk, her first collection of essays about motherhood, marriage, feminism, and art Rachel Cusk redrew the boundaries of fiction with the Outline Trilogy, three "literary masterpieces" (The Washington Post) whose narrator, Faye, perceives the world with a glinting, unsparing intelligence while remaining opaque to the reader. Lauded for the precision of her prose and the quality of her insight, Cusk is a writer of uncommon brilliance. Now, in Coventry, she gathers a selection of her nonfiction writings that both offers new insights on the themes at the heart of her fiction and forges a startling critical voice on some of our most urgent personal, social, and artistic questions. Coventry encompasses memoir, cultural criticism, and writing about literature, with pieces on family life, gender, and politics, and on D. H. Lawrence, Françoise Sagan, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Named for an essay Cusk published in Granta ("Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There's a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it's called being sent to Coventry"), this collection is pure Cusk and essential reading for our age: fearless, unrepentantly erudite, and dazzling to behold.
The first grouping in the set, under the heading “Coventry”, are by far the most significant, comprising lengthy essays on metaphor, rudeness, motherhood, divorce, and feminism, all with an eye to their relationship to narrative. “Coventry” as the essay of that title explains, is said to be the place a young girl is “sent” when her peers shun her. It’s a common enough experience. But Cusk receives this punishment also from her parents, especially her mother, who is portrayed in a very cold light. And at some point she begins to enjoy life in Coventry. Exclusion becomes seclusion. Punishment becomes accomplishment. Like the individual sentenced to solitary confinement who happily contemplates finally being able to get a little time to himself. This awkward accommodation with circumstance becomes almost a theme for Cusk as she attempts to reconcile herself to her role as a mother, her (failed) relationship with her spouse, and even the lesser niceties of interpersonal interaction, the breakdown of which is perceived as rudeness.
Cusk’s is at once a penetrating gaze and at the same time characteristically askew. You can’t help wondering about her as a writer. Some writers you like to imagine coming over for dinner; Cusk not so much. This despite your absolute conviction that she is an important writer.
The short section of this collection — some literary reflections and introductions for republished novels by other authors — constitute mostly filler. But pleasant filler. She writes a fine overview and deftly points out some of the key features of individual books, sometimes with a glancing sharp observation about the author. It’s not surprising, I think, to find that fine writers are also fine readers of literature; indeed the latter may be a prerequisite for the former.
In all, this is a collection well worth reading. It will be admired without, perhaps, being loved.