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Rachel Cusk arrives at the Giller Prize Awards ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 20, 2017.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

  • Title: Coventry
  • Author: Rachel Cusk
  • Genre: Essays
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 256

If by their punctuation ye shall know them, then the key to Rachel Cusk is the colon. Most writers tend to use it sparingly, for emphasis or introduction, but Cusk is happy, in her new collection of previously published non-fiction writing, to fill entire paragraphs with colon-based sentences. This makes her writing feel a bit like gently crackling fireworks, or, when a point is made more forcefully, the toss and slam of a tennis serve.

Cusk, who was born in Canada but is otherwise unapologetically British, is best known here for the brilliantly strange and moody novels known as the Outline trilogy, two of which were shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Each features the same self-styled narrator, a divorced writer who spends an unusual amount of time listening, non-reactive and sphinx-like, to a series of soliloquies by various acquaintances. The novels were, in part, Cusk’s response to the drubbing she got at home in Britain for three memoirs that preceded them, particularly A Life’s Work, in which she queried the sanctity of that holy of holies: motherhood. Although some praised her bravery, Cusk’s frankness didn’t sit well with a lot of women, and misrepresentations and vicious attacks ensued. A later book about her divorce, Aftermath (the essay version of which appears in Coventry), also met with hostility. (For a taste, find the earlier version of the essay called “Aftermath” on the Guardian’s website, and read the comments: those that don’t dress Cusk down for extreme self-involvement have mostly been taken down for their failure to “abide by community standards,” something Cusk also excels at.)

In style and setting, Coventry’s longer personal essays – by far its starring attractions – have a surprising amount in common with the Outline novels, the difference being that Cusk is no longer a mute interlocutor, but an indelible, opinionated presence. That feels like a relief, frankly, as though Cusk has ripped the duct tape off her mouth after a self-induced hostage-taking.

Presiding over them, and over much of Cusk’s other work, are her parents, with whom she has, to put it mildly, a vexed relationship. Her mother especially seems to function as a kind of hate-muse, generating some of Cusk’s strongest ideas and most visceral prose, as in this contemplation of her mother in a wedding photo: “That beauty was gone now, all used up, like the oil that is sucked out of the earth for the purpose of combustion.” The quote is from the book’s title essay, “Coventry,” a reference to an English phrase with war-time origins, “being sent to Coventry,” which essentially means to be ostracized, something Cusk says her parents still routinely and randomly do to her: “All my life I have been terrified of Coventry, of its vastness and bleakness and loneliness, and of what it represents, which is ejection from the story.”

Cusk has attempted to reinsert herself back into that metaphorical story literally, by writing stories. In “On Rudeness” she tells us that, growing up, words were her chief weapon against her mother, whose “labour, her maternal identity, her status were all outside the language economy.” And yet, those words were often rendered impotent by her mother’s almost Trumpian disdain for language: “She didn’t care what she said, or rather, she exacted from words the licentious pleasures of misuse; in so doing, she took my weapon and broke it before my eyes.”

Few things are as important to Cusk as truth, and its corollary, freedom. Both are arguably at the core of all these pieces, whether they’re about divorce, overzealous shop clerks, homemaking (“Making Home”), her teenaged daughters (“Lions on Leashes”), driving in the English seaside town where she lives with her second husband (“Driving as Metaphor”), or about the writers and artists she admires – D.H. Lawrence, Louise Bourgeois, Natalia Ginzburg, Olivia Manning. Cusk has a naturally philosophic bent, carefully teasing out the through lines of her thought processes even when it leads to a dead end. She does impressively complex things with deceptively simple statements. Reading Coventry’s essays, I sometimes felt as though I’d gotten lost in a hedge maze that only came up to my hips, which I don’t intend as criticism: retracing my steps was part of their pleasure.

Cusk, it must be said, isn’t what you’d call a cracker of jokes – she even suggests, in a smartly cutting review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, that humour can be a kind of neutralizing cop-out – and there’s a downbeat seriousness to these pieces that isn’t always easy to take in large doses. If one Cusk line sums up the anxiety behind that seriousness, behind Cusk’s relentless truth seeking, it’s surely this one: “Knowledge is so slender and hard-won, and ignorance so vast and dangerous.”

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries and Best Canadian Essays 2019

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