NPR's Favorite Books of 2019
Rachel Cusk redrew the boundaries of fiction with the Outline Trilogy, three “literary masterpieces” (The Washington Post) whose narrator, Faye, perceives the world with a glinting, unsparing intelligence while remaining opaque to the reader. Lauded for the precision of her prose and the quality of her insight, Cusk is a writer of uncommon brilliance. Now, in Coventry, she gathers a selection of her nonfiction writings that both offers new insights on the themes at the heart of her fiction and forges a startling critical voice on some of our most urgent personal, social, and artistic questions.
Coventry encompasses memoir, cultural criticism, and writing about literature, with pieces on family life, gender, and politics, and on D. H. Lawrence, Françoise Sagan, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Named for an essay Cusk published in Granta (“Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There’s a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it’s called being sent to Coventry”), this collection is pure Cusk and essential reading for our age: fearless, unrepentantly erudite, and dazzling to behold.
Memoirist and novelist Cusk (Kudos) turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection. Broken into three sections, the volume takes its title from an English term for "the silent treatment," which typified how Cusk's parents disciplined her as a child. The opening chapters focus on memoir, but within the context of broader questions about society, families, women and work, and what makes a home. Cusk tackles, in addition to her fraught relationship with her parents, life after separating from her husband and with her daughters as they become teenagers (in the deliciously titled "Lions on Leashes"). In the second section, she examines art and its creation, in one piece grappling with "women's writing" in terms of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir ("Shakespeare's Sisters"). The final section ventures into literary criticism with analyses of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, D.H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning, and Edith Wharton. 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.