by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
Rachel Cusk presents a definition of a phrase she’s commonly heard in England known as “being sent to Coventry,” which she describes as herself becoming banished by those that uphold a refusal to integrate her into their lives.
Cusk is no stranger to providing coordinates for her displacement among those around her. Her memoirs, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) & Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012) already offer glimmers of sensitive self-reflection that reappears in her new collection of essays, Coventry. As in her most recent Outline trilogy, Cusk constructs the appearance of the essays into three parts that expand upon each other. 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 writes, “Much of my being in Coventry, I now realise, lay in my willingness to recognise and accept the state of being outcast.”
Part II, “A Tragic Pastime,” begins to blur the lines between her level of disbelief that stories can bring against her own sense of reality. In her essay, “How To Get There,” she considers how past literature by women has prepared her to consider how writers acquire a sense of “making it” in the evolving writing world. Finally, Part III, “Classics and Bestsellers” has Cusk loosen the reins, describing her blips of encounters with literature in ways that feel more ostracizing—if not familiar—than inspiring.
Nevertheless, 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. There is a recurring sentiment Cusk has about aging, especially when one becomes an adult, that considers how we’re all wired as human beings to achieve some sort of path toward graceful innocence. Cusk writes, “I have never felt myself to be ageing: on the contrary, I have always had the strange sensation as time passes that I am getting not older but younger. My body feels as though it has innocence as its destination.”
This revelation is most emphasized through Cusk’s depiction of her own alienation. Her children twiddle on their phones and the last conversation Cusk has with her father had him comparing her to feces, to put it lightly. Again, in the self-titled essay “Coventry,” Cusk discusses the pattern of life that she’s managed to observe involving adults, like herself, never feeling here nor there, but still free and unfree at the same time. Cusk deduces that navigating this sense of “free vs. unfree” is dependent on a single task: a lot of talking.
Cusk’s essays create her own roadmap to making sense of her intentional disbelief both in her life and in her stories. As her Outline trilogy follows the enigmatic and strategically silent character Faye as she floats around a series of conversations, it feels reminiscent to Cusk’s observation of a friend who—Cusk deduces—is a type of person/mother/woman who, if a disaster were to strike her friend, her friend’s greatest power would be the courage to conceal her own behavior and demeanor. That is, until her friend begins to talk more. Cusk views silence as a skill. In her essay, “Making Home,” she discovers that her daughter threw a party at their home while she was away. Immediately upset at the thought of the narrative of her home—not the home itself—being redefined, Cusk becomes emotionally overwhelmed without being able to utter a word to anyone else, to switch her disbelief to belief which—Cusk mentions—is separate from relief:
When I get back, I open the door expecting to be hit by the smell of stale alcohol and smoke, but in fact what I smell are flowers…On the journey back, I brooded on the probability that I would never feel quite the same about the home I had created, for while I knew a hundred teenagers had conducted a bacchanal there, the fact that I didn’t witness it seemed to create an unbreachable dissociation, a feeling of separation that I was surprised to discover caused me a degree of relief.
In the title essay “Coventry,” Cusk admits her ultimate relief: choosing to stay in Coventry. 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. It’s as if I too revert to a primal configuration of being neither here nor there, enamored by my own silence, idly flipping the pages until someone may come along and start talking to me.
—Alex Simms used to photograph stories but now he tries writing about them. His work has appeared in Rookie, Oh Comely, Trampset, and elsewhere. He often reviews books on YouTube @whatpageareyouon