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Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk, review – A compelling search for knowledge and truth

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Rachel Cusk in London, 2016
Rachel Cusk in London, 2016 Credit:  Rii Schroer

In "Coventry", the essay from which this coruscating collection takes its title, Rachel Cusk describes an encounter between her husband and her parents that took place when the older couple paid the younger one a visit. Her husband had asked her parents "where they thought my honesty had come from". We're never told their answer; all we learn is that, in recalling the episode, Cusk's husband remembers "a retraction, a jolt in his audience", something he since assumed to be the source of the silent treatment he and his wife received after her parents left.

He probably shouldn't blame himself. "Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical," Cusk opens the essay, "my mother and father stop speaking to me." As she reveals in "On Rudeness" – the piece that follows – it's precisely her "outspokenness" that usually causes the rift.

Cusk's parents aren't the only ones who have struggled with her frankness. For every reader who admired her unflinching memoirs A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, there was another who reacted with criticism and contempt. But, as becomes crystal clear in Coventry (if readers weren't aware of it already), the last thing Cusk gives a damn about is ruffling feathers; the pursuit of truth is what interests her.

Although she is not the first writer to be preoccupied with the relationship between narrative and truth – specifically, of how we use narrative to make sense of our lives – the scope of the subjects through which Cusk approaches this question, from manners and family dynamics to Brexit and creative writing courses, is eye-opening. I struggle to name another writer who mines the muck and murk of "the family story" with the same strange combination of seemingly careless candour and sharp lucidity.

This is something that extends to her fiction, too. Commonly recognised as autofiction since they draw so heavily on Cusk's own life, her recent trilogy of novels – Outline, Transit and Kudos – were deeply engaged with the stories people tell about themselves. The narrator, Faye, is a writer, a mother and a wife (newly divorced when we meet her in the first volume, remarried by the final book), like Cusk herself; she listens as people she meets, from close friends to casual acquaintances, unburden their stories on to her.

In Aftermath (the first chapter of which is reprinted here as a stand-alone essay), Cusk describes her first husband's account of how "monstrously" she'd treated him as "his story". "The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life," she elaborates in "Lions on Leashes". "There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other."

Something similar happens during adolescence, she argues, a period during which the parents' previous "control" of the family story breaks down: "A large part of parental authority is invested in the maintenance and upkeep of this story, its repetition, its continued iterations and adaptations." This model helps her unpack Brexit too, Leavers and Remainers sparring like antagonistic exes: "Before, there was one truth, one story, one reality; now there are two." As elsewhere in these essays, memoir morphs into broader interrogations of society and the laws that govern it.

Language, as Cusk explains in "How to Get There" – a fresh perspective on the now usually tedious issue of the value of creative writing courses – "is not only the medium through which existence is transacted, it constitutes our central experiences of social and moral content, of such concepts as freedom and truth, and most importantly, of individuality and the self; it is also a system of lies, evasions, propaganda, misrepresentation and conformity." As such, she argues, we might regard an aspiration to write as "a desire to live more honestly through language". Her interrogation of insolence in "On Rudeness" is tied up in a similar quest for authenticity. Truth and rudeness are habitually confused, she says, especially when the former "appears in the guise of a threat to the social code".

The final section of the book – essays on writers such as Edith Wharton, Françoise Sagan, Elizabeth Gilbert and Natalia Ginzburg – is nimble and insightful, as are the pieces in the middle section, which could loosely be described as being about the creation of art. It's the pieces in the first section, though, that really stand out, those that draw most heavily on the personal. In Outline, Transit and Kudos, Faye finds knowledge – what we might also call "truth" – through suffering. Although all the pieces in Coventry have already appeared elsewhere, to encounter them en masse is to be able to trace the evolution of Cusk's own search for knowledge and truth, and it's every bit as compelling as the one undertaken by her fictional alter-ego.

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