Coventry

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 20 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

I’ve long been an admirer of Rachel Cusk’s dry, verging-on-ironic writing style. She brings the same style and sensibility to this collection of essays, Coventry. Her subject matter is varied – from the personal including talking about raising her two daughters, to the cold, unfathomable behaviour of her parents, to notes on driving. The collection also highlights her literacy journalism in which she  writes about Edith Wharton, Francoise Sagan, Natalia Ginzburg and others. Sterling essays.
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This book is about how we narrate our own lives and times. I was particularly immersed in Cusk's meditations in this wonderful book and I truly recommend it!
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for this arc.
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I normally really enjoy essay collections, especially when there is a good mixture of literary criticism,  current events, personal life and some humor.  That is my personal preference and there are authors who I feel hit the mark really well.  This collection hit some of those marks.  The literary criticism section is especially strong with a good mix of current and classic and some great points made.  However, I felt that the author also takes herself too seriously and some of the essays felt pretentious. Overall, this was a mixed read for me.  I received a digital copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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The best essays make you look at things differently.  This collection, comprised of material heretofore published in the likes of Granta and The Guardian, consists of fine examples of why Rachel Cusk is in such demand as a writer and as an analyst of other writers.   The first two sections concern essays of introspection, autobiographical in nature.  She writes of what she knows of life, with echoes of her recent trilogy:  the harrowing conditions of trying to drive around her own home town, a popular seaside resort with small curved roads and distracted holiday drivers, to the challenges faced by a single mother post divorce with teenaged daughters, to observations on rudeness, to the elemental bullying of sending someone to Coventry by shutting them out and denying their existence (ghosting in today's parlance), a passage I particularly enjoyed as she wonders why the lovely city of Coventry was chosen to describe this evil custom.  

There are deeper than average descriptions of travel experiences, and then the final section containing a series of studies of writers, mostly women, and what it means for a woman to forge a career as a writer and carve a distinct identity in doing so.  I particularly liked the one about Olivia Manning, her Balkan and Levant Trilogies, books that have been on my "to-do list" for about five years.
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I adored Rachel Cusk's trilogy of novels, Outline, Transit and Kudos.  Outline, especially, was such a marvel of construction and form as well as gorgeous prose.  Needless to say, I requested this book of essays immediately because I love her writing.  I was not disappointed.  The book is broken into three parts: the first deals with personal essays, the second talks about creativity and the artistic life, and the third is literary criticism.  The personal essays in the first section were my favorite because they were longer in form and had a tendency to touch a subject, wander off and then circle back in a remarkable way.  Here, Cusk's writing is on full display.  Not being a writer or artist, the second section was less interesting to me.  The third section was also great fun --it was like having Cusk sit in on book club (although the discussion is much more highbrow than my book club tends to get!)  I would have gotten even more from this section if I had previously read more of the books she discusses.
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This collection of essays combines memoir, social and literary criticism, and in a way, all of the texts are talking about storytelling: How we narrate our own lives and times is the main focus of Cusk's explorations. The author meditates about driving as a metaphor, the narrative families employ to define themselves and what happens when it is questioned by teenagers or even shattered by divorce, rudeness as a way of communication, teaching creative writing as a profession, art as way of expression, and of course she also writes about literary works, namely The Age of Innocence, The Rainbow, Bonjour tristesse, The Balkan Trilogy, Eat, Pray, Love (spoiler alert: she's not a fan :-)), Never Let Me Go and the writing of Natalia Ginzburg.

Cusk shines when she dissects conflict and complex emotions, especially when she talks about the gap between knowing what's right and feeling something that's incongruous with that knowledge. While I don't share some of her positions, e.g. when it comes to feminism ("Feminism as a cultural and political crisis comes and goes") or nature (while Cusk constantly talks about "dumb nature", I share Richard Powers' position that nature might be smarter than us), it's always interesting to follow her thought process, both because of her ideas and because of her ability to convey them in surprising and captivating ways. 

I was particularly immersed in her meditations about feminity and domesticity, because frequently, I was unsure whether I would say she is right, which in itself is a narrative feat: Cusk puzzled me and made me think about how I narrate myself, my family, my society, and my time, and that's exactly what a good essay collection should do.

Some of the texts are already available online, here's a link to the title-giving essay: https://granta.com/coventry/
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