The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for September 2019 said:
‘A series of essays that reflect on themes central to Cusk’s fictional writing, including life choices, politics, womanhood and art’.
I am not sure I have ever read a collection of essays before. Of course, I have read essays but never a curated collection from a single author so I was unsure what to expect, and I was unfamiliar with Cusk’s work. It did not begin well. The first couple of essays in section one (which include the title essay ‘Coventry’) had quirky and enjoyable nibbles of acute observation but I found the essays to be a bit over self-aware … trying too hard, too cerebral, too self-indulgent.
The first collection of essays are inward-looking and somewhat autobiographical. The second a mix of reflection, introspection and commentary and the third commentary on works from other writers. The last section (Classics and Bestsellers) was straightforward, and from a review perspective, easy to understand. These are essays about well-known writers and their work, for example, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow. These essays evidence an enviable exactitude and economy of prose alongside astounding clarity and intelligence. While I was awed by the gifted writing, I was not overawed and learned a great deal. (Even about Louise Bourgeois of whom I am a fan and despite this particular essay having something of a dense form). I am in the process of reading or re-reading all the works she addresses in this section.
I struggle more with the earlier two sections of the book. I felt irritated by them, and the irritation endured after I had finished the book. I had to go back and re-read it to understand why. On second reading, I tuned in to the fluidity of the writing and the clever and finely tuned wit. I particularly relished ‘On Rudeness’ and wish everyone would read it. Cusk has a blisteringly penetrating gaze and unique voice. On second reading I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I think my irritation had root in the unapologetic erudite, self-awareness presented in her work. As a feminist, I applaud and support the lack of apology from any woman for her scholarly sophistication but reflect that I see it so rarely I experienced it as ‘show-offy’. My initial response says more about my academic and scholarly insecurities that it should about the accessibility of Cusk’s book.
I still do not quite understand how this book came to be or who it is for. It was a bold choice to publish it. I have no idea if I am the target market (Guardian reader, educated, woman, feminist, writer) but I am glad I read it and that it was included in the ‘books to look forward to’ Review calendar for this month.