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The reader is confident that, encountering Cusk in any circumstances, he would fall short

Rachel Cusk: ruthless and formidable observations

Coventry review: Rachel Cusk's intelligence in writing about everything from literature to parenthood is staggering

The word that keeps coming to mind when reading this collection of Rachel Cusk’s essays is “formidable”. It describes her intelligence in writing about everything from literature to parenthood (those opposing forces) – but formidable also describes her personality as she reports it in the personal essays that make up the bulk of the book. This reader is confident that, encountering Cusk in any circumstances, he would fall short.

The world repeatedly fails to meet her high standards, no matter how many pieces she writes for the Guardian and the New York Times Magazine to warn it. She is disappointed by people driving too slowly in front of her, by shop staff offering misguided assistance, by a “rude” airport official wearing a “synthetic shirt, black synthetic trousers, a cheap tie,” even by her own parents who regularly stop speaking to her – that is, send her to Coventry (hence the book’s title). Not included is her 2005 piece for the Guardian about the time she joined a local book club, prompting an exodus of other members and an angry response in the letters page.

Of course she is aware of this Victrix Meldrew persona that she portrays, and the risks and limitations in conveying her feelings. On the airport official, she acknowledges that “I find myself relying on details of the man’s physical ugliness to prove the badness of his character.” She is as ruthless in her self-awareness as she is in her observations of others.

The benefit of structuring the longest essays around personal experiences (driving, divorcing, home decorating) is that it gives the reader a grappling place for the rigorous intellectual heft of Cusk’s writing.

In the essay on her parents not speaking to her, she notes that “they appear to be wielding power, but their silence is the opposite of power. It is in fact a failure, their failure to control the story, their failure to control me. It is a failure so profound that all they have left to throw at it is the value of their own selves, like desperate people taking the last of their possessions to the pawnshop.”

All six personal essays here are approachable but substantial

From here, the essay pushes out further into the understanding of the event as a story, noting that simply picking up the phone wouldn’t make sense for her parents, because “this isn’t how stories work. For a start, it’s far too economical. The generation of a narrative entails a lot of waste. In the state of war, humans are utterly abandoned to waste in the pursuit of victory.” Cusk explores the necessity for the person being sent to Coventry to “accept the state of being outcast”, this need for agreement even within disagreement, the performative nature of families in public, and how we commit to our own behavioural rules. This is not just taking a thought for a walk but running into the wind with it and soaring through the skies.

All six personal essays here are approachable but substantial, and show that the subtle intelligence, close observation and leaps of thought which Cusk displayed in her acclaimed trilogy of novels Outline, Transit and Kudos, had been in evidence in her non-fiction all along. Sometimes I found myself arguing with her approach while I read a piece (such as her view on how to adapt Euripides’s Medea for modern understanding), then afterwards deciding I would steal that view myself.

She is occasionally funny, both in her self-awareness and her acute diagnoses of others. Writing about her childhood homes and her mother’s maintenance of the museum-like “nicest room in the house”, she recognises that “these rooms were expressive works, attempts to perfect reality and hold it in an eternal moment. What they seemed to suggest was that [my mother] would never be happier than in the home she made for us, at the times when we weren’t there”.

The rest of the book is made up of short essays on artists and writers ... they are the perfect final course for this knotty, nutritious book

Cusk has written two non-fiction books about family life – Aftermath, on her divorce (the first chapter of which, oddly, is included here) and A Life’s Work, on becoming a parent – and she is excellent on being a mother to teenagers. As children grow up, they revise the authoritative view of family life delivered by their parents “like some dispassionate reviewer composing a cold-hearted analysis of an overhyped novel”. She despairs of her daughter’s friends, who mock their mothers’ servitude to their wishes while revering their fathers for their jobs and “importance in the world”. She is baffled by parents who suggest that children become difficult as teenagers, as though parenthood isn’t a very mixed bag from the first day.

The rest of the book is made up of short essays on artists and writers such as Louise Bourgeois, Edith Wharton, Olivia Manning and Simone de Beauvoir, which have the desired effect: to make you read the books you don’t know, and reread the ones you thought you did. They are the perfect final course for this knotty, nutritious book.