...a sharp new miscellany ... Cusk’s first collection of essays. It also contains some book reviews and introductions, but her heart does not seem in them. She mediates between her mind and the external world with a precision and agility that mostly goes missing when she mediates between texts ... [the essays] are first-rate, marked by candor and seriousness, and they’re familiar ... Her writing about parenting is discerning and granular ... Cusk’s essays are subtle; they do not announce their intentions through a megaphone. She feels her way into her topics and she will not be hurried. You read her for her riddling questions, not whatever answers might pop out at the end. She is often ambivalent, but never neutral in the self-protective modern manner. She is a poet of split feelings. Her inquisitive intelligence is the rebar that, inside the concrete, holds the edifice upright.
Though the metaphor is now a little tired, Rachel Cusk’s new essay collection, Coventry, flips it over to articulate her own desires for writing. In 'Making Home,' one of the book’s best essays, she imagines houses to be like novels, rather than the other way around ... Cusk throws out the furniture, but instead of standing alone in the newly spacious interior she then walks to the curb and describes how everything landed ... Cusk’s works give us something like the novel of exteriority: they consist almost entirely of recounted talk and external description, so we judge the characters not by what they think but by how they look and what they say ... It is a sturdy and worthwhile collection of previously published material, but it won’t change anyone’s mind about Rachel Cusk. It will not convert any of the haters, nor will it leave any of her fans thinking that she’s flown the coop ... Coventry might best be read as a publisher’s guidebook on Cusk Country’s dominant themes and narrative strategies ... The 'tension' that colors every aspect of one’s own identity and shared relationships but that is 'difficult to locate' in language: that is the meat of Cusk’s most riveting work ... If this is what you look for in Cusk, then Coventry delivers ... Fans of Cusk’s prose and authorial perspective, her cutting wit and inimitable turns of phrase, will enjoy these essays.
She writes like someone who has been burned and has reacted not with self-censorship but with a doubling-down on clarity. She is blazingly intelligent, a deep, tough-minded thinker (and sometimes over-thinker) whose essays, like the Outline trilogy, are at once freewheeling and exquisitely precise ... These 17 essays are better appreciated when read piecemeal (which is how they were originally published) rather than straight through, but readers will welcome their many insights into Cusk's mindset ... Not all of the essays feel essential; a short piece on artist Louise Bourgeois and another on Edith Wharton add little to the collection ... Reading Coventry, at times I found myself wishing for some charm or humor. Neither are qualities Cusk prizes, as she makes clear in an article on Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, which she finds distastefully egotistic and attention-grabbing. Cusk is no ingratiator; this uncompromisingly serious writer would rather live in Coventry than win us over by sugarcoating the truth.
...[a] coruscating collection ...as becomes crystal clear in Coventry (if readers weren't aware of it already), the last thing Cusk gives a damn about is ruffling feathers; the pursuit of truth is what interests her. Although she is not the first writer to be preoccupied with the relationship between narrative and truth – specifically, of how we use narrative to make sense of our lives – the scope of the subjects through which Cusk approaches this question...is eye-opening. I struggle to name another writer who mines the muck and murk of 'the family story' with the same strange combination of seemingly careless candour and sharp lucidity ... The final section of the book...is nimble and insightful, as are the pieces in the middle section, which could loosely be described as being about the creation of art. It's the pieces in the first section, though, that really stand out, those that draw most heavily on the personal ... Although all the pieces in Coventry have already appeared elsewhere, to encounter them en masse is to be able to trace the evolution of Cusk's own search for knowledge and truth, and it's every bit as compelling as the one undertaken by her fictional alter-ego.
Despite [Cusk's] return to autobiography, the authorial mask is not completely removed, and the essays are stronger for it. The voice is more expansive than in her memoirs, imbued with an authority that is all the more powerful because it is diffuse and flexible, aware of its limited perspective and willing to be measured against those of others ... If the Outline novels were an exercise in listening to, and weighing, the stories of others, in these essays, Cusk is similarly contending with inherited narratives — marriage, civility, feminism — to see whether they are still inhabitable, whether anything can be salvaged ... Cusk, like the best artists, has renovated her work from its deepest interior — the self — transforming her private crises into an expansive aesthetic vision...her essays reveal how profoundly this individualistic vision suffuses her work, even when she is not physically 'there.' She has not obliterated the self but refracted it — much as a woman imprints herself onto the furnishings of her home, or a mother onto her children, manifesting her image in everything she creates.
As in her novels, Cusk’s prose in these essays is a tight guitar string or a wire from an espalier. Her descriptions are delicate, sharp, and constraining. They have a bewildering precision, a feeling of painful truthfulness, especially when it comes to the work of getting pen to paper... Cusk is so unsparing that it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t see the limitation in her perception; it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t register the one-sidedness of this gaze. Perhaps this is why so many of these essays are committed to justifying the view from Coventry ... But the cold doesn’t always grant you clearer sight and sharper judgment. Sometimes it’s just cold, and you’re stuck there, trying to keep the blood flowing as long as possible.
This collection is fiercely intelligent, with enviable prose that is at once luminous and precise ... The best essays in the book are the long lyrical ones that take the reader on confident, if circuitous, journeys. The tour-de-force may be the opening piece, 'Driving as Metaphor'. Psychologically astute as always, Cusk identifies a variety of driving 'types': the fast driver, the slow driver, the rageful driver, the old driver – and the non-driver ... Less effective are some of the book reviews that Cusk appears to have 'filed away' here. In her contemplation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love she seems to dole out criticisms that have traditionally been applied to her own work (eg 'egotism'), and thus an unkindness is perpetuated ... Coventry may have been a more cohesive work if it had contained only first-person essays – or perhaps, at the other extreme, it could have edged more forcefully towards eccentricity and hybridity, reflecting Cusk’s deconstructionist approaches to form and self.
Her ruminations always get cerebral but are based on brilliant bits of observation, as in her piece on driving ... Her intensity can be infectious (her appraisal of Lawrence’s The Rainbow, for instance, makes one want to grab it back off the shelf immediately) and her obsessions instructive. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Cusk can’t stop thinking about narrative ... Cusk is someone whose intelligence naturally complicates issues rather than simplifies them, and who, amused and helpless, is compelled to report back to us from the unique perspective of herself.
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 ... 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 ... Sometimes I found myself arguing with her approach while I read a piece...then afterwards deciding I would steal that view myself. She is occasionally funny, both in her self-awareness and her acute diagnoses of others ... short essays on artists and writers such as Louise Bourgeois, Edith Wharton, Olivia Manning and Simone de Beauvoir...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.
Cusk is not an ideologue or a rhetorician. She is not out to dictate or persuade. The essay form—in the sense of an assay—is perfect for her ruminative nature and for her preference for extended metaphor over analysis. She likes to complicate rather than simplify, to shift between startling concrete images and philosophic generalizations that she will soon acknowledge to be compromised ... Writing, for Cusk, is no more about pleasing your audience or seeking sympathy than it is about justifying your past behavior. It is not even about seeking solace in self-expression. Indeed, her 'I' is not really an expressive entity. Rather, she is a descriptive writer, almost ascetically so ... alienation and isolation—including from the self as a described object—are at the dark and unpalatable heart of Cusk’s vision, which probably explains why she has disturbed so many readers ... Beneath Rachel Cusk’s poised artfulness is a depth of pain and shame that critics dismiss at their peril.
This dichotomy, between the fictions we compose about our lives—the specific lens through which we chose to view them, and the truth, is a recurring theme in this incisive, sagacious collection of essays. Reading through them offers the pleasure of watching Cusk’s mind at work as she confronts and digs deep into the psychological dynamics underlying subjects ... Coventry marks a return to a more conventional style of writing, yet retains that same sense of an alert, engaged intelligence, negotiating the complexities of women’s lives and identities in our present moment ... what makes this well-crafted collection worth spending time with is Cusk’s voice: sharp, articulate, intelligent and honest. Brutally honest, but in a way that opens new horizons of thought and shows us the world from fresh perspectives.
'Coventry,' the title essay, is a whole novel crunched into the form of a think-piece, a theory of art masquerading as a few, deliberately disjointed autobiographical musings ... The other essays in the collection are in the more familiar vein of social observation ... 'Driving As Metaphor' deals with contradiction: we roar through other people’s villages, but snarl at anyone who passes through ours faster than 32mph ... Faber could have sold me this on the strength of 'Coventry' alone.
Part I, 'Coventry,' has Cusk ruminating most on her perception of how stories are made and how her multiple identities—mother, divorcee, car accident witnesser—participate in a degree of paralysis she feels when indulging in a voluntary 'suspension of disbelief' ... Cusk displays an infectious enthusiasm in her prose to try unmasking the supposed linearity of life. Her essays frequently interrogate a thought, question, or hiccup of an idea ... Cusk’s essays create her own roadmap to making sense of her intentional disbelief both in her life and in her stories ... Without ever trying to convince the reader to join alongside her plights with pitying retail employees or digesting her ex-husband’s perspective on her own brand of feminism, Cusk doesn’t entirely convince me to keep reading this collection either.
The six autobiographical essays in this collection all turn on the need to extricate truth from the false and deceitful layers of fiction ... It is a staple of contemporary fiction to explore the manner in which we get trapped in fictions. What is unusual is not Cusk’s distrust of stories but her faith in truth ... Cusk’s essay depends on a distinction between story and truth, but it failed to get me on its side because I kept finding myself thinking about alternatives to Cusk’s version of the story ... Cusk wants us to read her reflections as constitutive of the 'really real,' but too often they stay at the level of personal or subjective reality ... Cusk constantly struggles to balance the small detail and the big truth when she denies herself the room to roam into the fictive ... Throughout these essays, Cusk keeps conflating truth and honesty, but they are not the same ... Cusk knows that she has no more purchase on universal truth than the rest of us, and maybe that’s why she courts opprobrium in the way she does. She keeps claiming a right—to the role of seer—to which she knows she is not entitled.
Cusk is occupied with stories—their flimsiness, their evasions, their necessity for order ... This theme, the possible splintering from a commonly-agreed upon version of events, threads itself through the collection ... At times, her obsession with stories can seem too cerebral, detached from what’s actually at stake ... Nowhere is her abstraction more perplexing than in 'Aftermath,' an earlier, shorter version of her much-maligned memoir. Justifications for the divorce are muddled, opaque ... 'Aftermath,' after all, is page after page of her own self-constructed account, one that meanders into tiresome tangents on gender norms to proclaim, bizarrely, that as a woman who abided by her parents’ 'male values' she is not a feminist but a 'self-hating transvestite' ... Cusk is best when she exposes her own perspective, letting herself dwell on the uncertainty of its truth ... The magic of Coventry is watching Cusk spin grand insights from topics as mundane as traffic. A larger point always emerges.
In Coventry...Cusk explains that her parents periodically withdraw contact without explanation. When her mother reaches out to reconnect after one such absence, Cusk decides not to re-engage, preferring to take up permanent residence in Coventry. It is from this place of exile that she observes the workings of the world ... As the themes of her autofiction and non-fiction converge, the essays also chip away at Cusk’s preoccupations — the tenuous agreements of civility, the tension between family life and the creative process, the making of a home — from multiple angles in order to chisel towards some sort of truth ... Perhaps in part in reaction to her parents’ silent treatment, as the language in her work becomes more streamlined, Cusk’s voice in Coventry resonates loud and clear.
Rachel Cusk has always written fearlessly about personal experience as a way of considering the expectations on women, from the inequalities of motherhood to the destruction and reinvention that comes with divorce, and has often faced considerable backlash from other women for her frankness, so a new collection of her nonfiction is always to be eagerly anticipated ... Cusk is rarely political in the explicit sense, but 'On Rudeness' begins with an observation of immigration officers at an airport in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum and expands to examine the role of language and expression in the social divisions made visible by the vote. Cusk’s unsparing ability to see links between her own experience and broader literary and historical perspectives has always elevated her personal writing above mere memoir, and this collection cements her reputation as one of the most fierce and elegant chroniclers of how we live now.
Pieces leap from the seemingly banal – the act of driving, the concept of rudeness, the frustrating nature of teenagers – to vast arenas where the author’s proven artfulness is allowed to thrive. The title essay, on being temporarily ignored in the course of a spat or grudge, transforms the familiar into the profound ... The author gives herself ample space to build the complex out of the insignificant, the reader accompanying her so far afield that it can be difficult to recall where the journey started ... Cusk writes caustically as ever about the constraints of womanhood, in the home and elsewhere, at times leading us to wonder whether she’s celebrating or dismissing feminism’s current incarnations ... The controversy that once surrounded Cusk’s writing on the private sphere could be viewed as laughable now, given how public the personal has become in the years since, but her scathing observations and unabashed honesty about motherhood (and its difficulties) still enlighten and illuminate ... Coventry can, at times, feel front-loaded with the author’s more powerful work; the latter half trails in overall impact. Though Cusk is certainly an invigorating critic, her gift is undeniably for expanding the realm of the personal, and the final essays on art and literature...end up feeling like tacked-on afterthoughts. Despite some curatorial unevenness, the collection still manages to represent the best contemporary essay writing has to offer – the artful unravelling of the author’s thoughts, the methodical revealing of ideas, the difficult journey to understanding, and the gift of watching a first-rate intellect at work.
... [a] brittle new collection ... Cusk is a keen observer of...ambiguous moments ... In Coventry, Cusk remains an incomparable writer about family, its intimate distances, its subtle tectonic shivers and lurching reversals ... One of Cusk’s peculiar skills is the sudden, abstracted, Henry James-like intuition of what is really going on behind the routines of daily, domestic life ... assertions about contemporary writers’ uncommitted distance from feminism, may already seem antique. So too Cusk’s plot-summarizing essays—mostly repurposed prefaces ... She’s an astute critic [of art and literature] but hardly a dazzling one, and at her best when finding close affinities with her subjects or turning from their work back to the world.
Coventry, Cusk’s first collection of essays, marks a deeper and steadier unpacking of the process by which one arrives at, and survives, the upheaval of disbelief ... The essays are wide-ranging and razor-sharp, rippling with erudite wit as they shift easily from the philosophical to the personal. They are divided into three sections, the first of which meticulously unpacks aspects of modern life...At their core, each essay interrogates the accepted social codes that govern such experiences and tracks Cusk’s own journeys of defection. The second section addresses more directly the question of how one makes art and the third draws together Cusk’s responses to a series of fellow writers and publishing trends ... In this collection, Cusk clearly distances herself from the role of the storyteller. Instead, she becomes a truthsayer, fuelled by a moral imperative. Narrative, she argues, depends upon the performance and acceptance of authority: someone is controlling the story. In conceding to this power, the truth of divergent experience risks being obscured. With her magnifying eye re-directing the heat of the sun, Cusk burns holes in the protective stories with which we shroud ourselves. Perhaps, she suggests, peace is achieved not when narratives fail, but when they are surpassed.
The most compelling contribution is the titular essay ... She is brilliant at elucidating the reasons for [her parents'] behaviour ... Not every essay contains Cusk’s trademark tautness and perception, and sometimes her postulations seem rather weak ... The final section, entitled rather prosaically ‘Classics and Bestsellers’, is also underwhelming until Cusk tackles Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love (2006) fame ... These paragraphs are razor sharp, beautifully written, and among the best in the book ... Cusk’s prose is most effective when she is combining social commentary with confession, uniting her personal story with her meticulous, almost scientific, appraisal of the world.
In Coventry, Rachel Cusk’s first collection of nonfiction writing, she has not reinvented the essay as she innovated the novel in her Outline trilogy—what she has done instead is showcase the pleasurable continuity of a mind at work on the same questions over time ... in the nonfiction register she writes with stunning clarity about her own capacity for cruelty, but also for compassion, perseverance, and maternal love ... The essay collection is broken into three sections, but it’s in the first—Coventry—that Cusk’s digressive style glimmers most, sometimes leading the reader to unexpected places ... Cusk is a master of the illustrative anecdote, allowing her to telescope between the specific and the abstract ... All in all, Cusk’s rare intelligence shines in these essays. But I did find myself missing the subtle situational humor that her eye for irony brought to her fiction—those dazzling moments where, in the latticework of allegory and specificity, a bit of light squeezed brightly through the cracks.
I have often wondered at the ethics involved when a talented author sharpens her words to engage in a one-sided battle of wits with a real person. Knowing her silent opponents have no equipment with which to defend themselves, let alone fight back, where do her readers’ sympathies land? This is the question I wrestled with in the deliciously engaging, often exasperating first section of Rachel Cusk’s collected essays ... Cusk’s work is erudite and authoritative, filled with incisive commentary and description ... But the reason to pick up this collection is for the first section, Coventry, in which Cusk is at her autobiographical finest ... As she describes her mother and their relationship, it’s clear that the woman claims an outsized piece of real estate in Cusk’s psyche, even as she denigrates her mother for being shallow and vain. It’s almost painful to see Cusk — a successful, witty, engaging adult — still locked in this battle, as angry as her adolescent self, unable to let it go.
Stories figure prominently in this collection of essays ... They’re addressed, of course, in the collection’s seven pieces about literature ... But stories are also at the crux of essays about driving, relationships, homemaking, and parenting ... Opening up the deep crevices of everyday life’s paradoxes, myths, and more, Cusk pulls apart the stories we tell to reflect on the mess underneath.
Readers who enjoy thoughtful writing will appreciate this collection of previously published essays ... These works are strongest when the Canadian-born writer, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives and works in the UK, focuses on family: marriage, separation, parenting, adolescence, and home ... These 17 essays are sassy, honest, and memorable. Readers will come away with numerous 'aha' moments.
A striking collection of essays ... Readers of the author’s first-person fiction will be pleased with the acutely observant narrative voice that characterizes these introspective meditations on family, motherhood, marriage, and community ... An eloquent and engrossing selection of nonfiction writing that will enhance Cusk’s stature in contemporary literature.
Memoirist and novelist Cusk...turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection ... There is an element of stream of consciousness to Cusk’s prose, with its effortless transitions from one idea to another. However, the overriding thread binding her essays is the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives. It’s something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.