Coventry by Rachel Cusk

I really enjoyed this collection of essays. As it says on the back of the book, the essays are a mixture of memoir and cultural and literary criticism. 

What I love most about the collection is probably what makes it most problematic: her very specific viewpoint. 

Words like ‘fierce’, ‘original’ and ‘formidable’ get used to describe Rachel Cusk and her writing and I think these words are code for our confused feelings about her viewpoint and the precision with which she expresses it. We remain uncomfortable about a woman able to reflect upon her experiences in a dispassionate manner. We might not always like what she has to say – this is where Cusk is interesting and possibly pushing against our gender stereotypes – but she does say it well and she does offer intriguing ways of looking at the world and our relationship with story.

‘Coventry’, the title piece, is one of my favourites, and though she speaks with great eloquence throughout the collection about the way in which every family creates its own narrative, it is in this essay that she gives the idea its clearest expression. She is sent to Coventry by her parents and she explores both why her parents treat her this way, the origins of the phrase itself and her relationship with this state of affairs. She says that her parents were born into a world of war and therefore 

‘war remains their model. War is a narrative: it might almost be said to embody the narrative principle itself. It is the attempt to create a story of life, to create agreement. In war, there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view, where violence is welcomed as the final means of arriving at a common version of events’ (p25).

I find this idea interesting and intriguing. Throughout the collection Cusk discusses the way in which we use narrative to explain our identities and lives, to try to find meaning and sense amidst the increasing chaos of a particular world unstructured by belief in god or a stable social order, and she talks about trying to be truthful. She also discusses ways in which female writing might address these ideas differently, especially through the domestic. However, in the same way that I feel her position to be problematic, I also find her truth to be problematic because it is a war, a war to persuade her readers to her point of view. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy reading her arguments or find many persuasive, it means that somehow there is a sense in which Cusk gets to criticise and enact in a manner not dissimilar to that she critiques. The specific point of view does, however, allow us to read her work with nuance. We can’t say we don’t know where she is coming from and perhaps I’m talking about the power of memoir and its uses in the essay.

Whatever you feel about who she is as presented in the text, Coventry is a great, provocative and fascinating collection of essays. There is nothing wrong with a bit of discomfort!I was meant to be reading Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips last week, but I got caught up in reading Coventry by Rachel Cusk and then Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill so the Caryl Phillips will follow after these two.