Rachel Cusk: ruthless and formidable observations

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

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

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

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.

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