Coventry, Rachel Cusk’s elegant but alienating collection of essays, is sketched into three sections. The first contains the heft of the intellectual work, belabouring a suite of social topics. The second is a kind of ekphrasis, responding to art as a way of understanding a broader theme. The third is closer to traditional criticism, focusing on the works and authors themselves.
The latter two sections are pretty good – especially on the craft of regeneration, and on Eat, Pray, Love – but not enough to make up for the pretence obliterated in the first section. Here, Cusk betrays herself as untrustworthy: although she rightly highlights her subjectivity as part of understanding the difference between truth and story, she also portrays herself as the only participant – not the pushy saleswoman or the fat, pockmarked airport staff – who can understand the slippages in the stories she tells.
While her opening piece on the free constraint of the car (“Driving as Metaphor”) is delicious, other essays seem to have all the taste of something you’d yell from a car. Can feminists mother? Are men who parent effectively women? Especially baffling is the essay “On Rudeness”. In it, Cusk assigns various things to rudeness: Brexit, racist border policing, not allowing her travelling companion to travel with an unsealed bag of half-used oil paints, the murder of a Polish man. Rude.
Every chapter, to its credit, is beautifully written and frank in the way that’s come to be expected of Cusk’s work. Even her implicit endorsement, or at least airy dismissal, that her daughter made predominantly white friends – “she is fourteen and has countless friends, most of them white-skinned and fair, with declarative middle-class voices and abundant shining waterfalls of hair” – has an iridescent prose that really made the double-take worth it. The alienation I felt while reading these essays was from the knowledge that Cusk accurately represents many other white upper-middle-class women like her – it was the discomfort of realising something you’d parodied actually exists, and sees you in equally horrifying terms.
The titular concept of being “sent to Coventry” is used both within and outside this book to refer to an act of ostracising. Cusk comes to theorise Coventry as an imposed state of isolation from story-making and meaning, and it is an isolation she leaves this reader with. But if nothing else, the strength of Cusk’s prose makes Coventry a nice enough place to visit.
Faber, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Rachel Cusk, Coventry ". Subscribe here.