A couple of years after author Rachel Cusk was born (in Saskatchewan in 1968), her parents moved to Los Angeles — where they lived next door to William Shatner. When Cusk was eight, the family moved again, this time to England, where she was mocked by her new schoolmates for her American accent.
It’s amusing to imagine Cusk ever being perceived as insufficiently British. In a career that spans 10 remarkable novels and three equally remarkable (but also controversial) memoirs, Cusk has hewed closely to the particular strain of British literature that abhors sentimentality, and finds brilliant, dark comedy in boredom, misery and disappointment. Her fiction and non-fiction alike is relentless in its commitment to exploring the painful struggle for personal truth, whatever the cost. (Even, occasionally, that of readerly pleasure.)
Cusk’s recent trilogy of novels, about a Cusk-like author who endures lengthy and revealing confessions from nearly every character with whom she interacts, has been a critical and commercial success (two of the books, Outline and Transit, were shortlisted for the Giller Prize here), but it’s very unlikely that such recognition will alter her own conception of what it means to be a serious writer. As she puts it in “Making Home,” one of the essays collected in her new book, Coventry: “To continue creating, a person perhaps has to maintain an essential discomfort in the world.”
The twin literary prerogatives of truth and discomfort are the threads that unite the 17 essays collected here. Whether she is writing about her ongoing estrangement from her parents in the title essay, or analyzing cultural misconceptions about creative writing classes in “How to Get There,” Cusk is constantly scratching away at default thinking, uninformed bigotry, and received wisdom in order to find whatever authenticity may lie beneath. (She also writes here about her divorce, her children, rudeness, the notion of women’s writing, and a number of writers including D.H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton and the very underrated Natalia Ginzburg.)
In “Driving as Metaphor,” Cusk notes that, when her two children were very young, she refused to drive: “Nearly everything I had to do would have been simplified by using a car, and I believe I saw in this fact a kind of death, as though by taking the easy way out I would miss the opportunity to learn the truth about my situation.” For Cusk, there is no greater crime than “taking the easy way out.” In her analysis of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love (an almost perfect antithesis of the memoirs Cusk has herself published), she writes that “women like this literature because it alleviates feelings of pressure without the attendant risks of rebellion or change.”
Cusk’s fans and detractors alike will recognize this tone, which can seem bloodless, even strident. She refuses to ever wink at the reader — to employ, as she puts it in that same Eat, Pray, Love essay, the “literary incarnation of the ‘best friend.’” And yet, once you’ve become acclimatized to the uncompromising chill of Cusk’s undeniably smart prose, her humour and humanity become more obvious, which makes the rewards of reading her that much more valuable. Any other way would be too easy.
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