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Coventry by Rachel Cusk

I only started reading Rachel Cusk last year, when I read all three books in her recent trilogy; Outline, Transit and Kudos. I really enjoyed both the humour and the quirkiness of some of the situations that she created. As a result I was very keen to read this series of essays called simply Coventry.

For those that might not know, Coventry is a city in the UK which has acquired its own phrase or idiom. To be ‘sent to Coventry’ is a phrase that means to be ignored or shunned by everyone. It dates back to English Civil War in the 1600s. In her essay Cusk talks about being sent to Coventry by her parents, but unfortunately, because she doesn’t talk to them all the time, it takes her some time to discover she has been banished there. This leads her to think about the quality of silence within relationships. Her husband’s parents, on the rare occasions that they would go out for a meal together, would often spend the whole meal in silence. This ‘signified that their intimacy was complete.’ As a result, her husband is not afraid of such silences. Cusk’s family were quite the opposite but her acceptance of Coventry starts to change, ‘In the following weeks, as the silence grows and expands and solidifies, I find myself becoming, if not exactly fond, increasingly accepting of it. All my life I have been terrified of Coventry, of its vastness and bleakness and loneliness, and of what it represents, which is rejection from the story. One is written out of the story of life like a minor character being written out of a soap opera.’

There are seven essays in the first part of this book, which increasingly dwell on home and family, parenthood within the context of a couple who are divorcing, and then where feminism sits within the family structure and complexity. For example, ‘Entering a house, I often feel that I am entering a woman’s body, and that everything that I do there will be felt more intimately by her than by someone else. But in that house it is possible to forget entirely – as the passengers on the top deck of a liner can forget the blackened, bellowing engine room below…’ There are some wonderful passages about children and the changes that happen to teenage girls in particular.

In the essay Making Home, Cusk describes the homes that others create: “Another friend of mine runs her home with admirable laxity, governing her large family by a set of principles that have tidiness as a footnote or a distant goal, something it would be nice to achieve one day, like retirement.’ She goes on to describe the stairs, ‘the stairs are virtually impassible with the possessions that have accumulated there, the books and clothes and toys…all precipitously stacked as if in a vertical lost property office.’ This so perfectly captures our own home, where the myth persists that if you leave children’s possessions on the stairway to their bedrooms they will pick up their things and carry them up. Long practiced, but never successful, like a war of attrition until one side gives up and the adults carry them upstairs. I love the realism that Cusk has created with these observations.

Cusk also turns out to be a fine observer of the changes taking place within her daughters. In the space of six months, the circle of friends around the youngest condenses. ‘The ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicised; at dinner, she talks about feminism, current affairs, ethics. My oldest daughter has already made this transition, so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now it is about the French headscarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it is like having dinner on the set of Question Time.‘ These are wonderful observations on the minutiae of everyday life.

Cusk goes on to talk about the roles of women in households and the sometimes surprising discoveries that being a mother can bring. In the two other sections Cusk works her way through a number of works of literature, reviewing and observing, pulling out the obscure or the interesting. As she talks about F Scott Fitzgerald, she notes that he caricatures the writer as being someone to whom people make suggestions for a character or a scene that might be used in a book. These days writers tend to have a tenured academic status, and you would ask them for advice, rather than suggest it yourself. These are the sort of small observations that make this such an interesting collection, and well worth a read. She goes on to tackle Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, together with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat, Pray, Love among the other gems of observation.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Faber and Faber, RRP 36.99


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