One of the great pleasures of a well-executed essay is not its structure, the clarity of its argument, or the distillation of its ideas, but the opportunity to see a great mind in action. In fact, the strongest essay writing often meanders and manoeuvres, nimble-footed and sure even when the reader is not. Thoughts split in myriad directions, returning to the source only to branch off again.
The best essays in Rachel Cusk’s new collection do just this. Pieces leap from the seemingly banal – the act of driving, the concept of rudeness, the frustrating nature of teenagers – to vast arenas where the author’s proven artfulness is allowed to thrive. The title essay, on being temporarily ignored in the course of a spat or grudge, transforms the familiar into the profound. “If other people pretend you’re not there,” Cusk writes, “[h]ow long can you go on believing you exist?” The author gives herself ample space to build the complex out of the insignificant, the reader accompanying her so far afield that it can be difficult to recall where the journey started.
When Cusk published A Life’s Work in 2002 (and later, in 2012, Aftermath), she established herself as a dynamic – and at times controversial – master of the personal non-fiction narrative. She revealed the ambivalence and ugliness of life, happy to be cold and even vicious in the service of greater truths. In many ways she was instrumental in cracking open the ability to speak intimately about the family without caring about reader reprisal, and it is wonderful to see that knack repeatedly spotlit here.
Cusk writes caustically as ever about the constraints of womanhood, in the home and elsewhere, at times leading us to wonder whether she’s celebrating or dismissing feminism’s current incarnations. Looking at the dynamics of her own disintegrated marriage, Cusk plucks out unexamined sources of gender inequity: “I was the compartmentalized modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn’t want help: I wanted equality.”
Whether writing about life or literature, Cusk spends the bulk of this collection ruminating on the role of women – mothers, daughters, wives, writers, artists, creators. The controversy that once surrounded Cusk’s writing on the private sphere could be viewed as laughable now, given how public the personal has become in the years since, but her scathing observations and unabashed honesty about motherhood (and its difficulties) still enlighten and illuminate.
Fans of Cusk will recognize this as a collection of pieces already out in the world, stitched together here to showcase her skills – and doing so handily. But Coventry can, at times, feel front-loaded with the author’s more powerful work; the latter half trails in overall impact. Though Cusk is certainly an invigorating critic, her gift is undeniably for expanding the realm of the personal, and the final essays on art and literature (Kazuo Ishiguro, Olivia Manning, even a witty, subversive take on Elizabeth Gilbert) end up feeling like tacked-on afterthoughts.
Despite some curatorial unevenness, the collection still manages to represent the best contemporary essay writing has to offer – the artful unravelling of the author’s thoughts, the methodical revealing of ideas, the difficult journey to understanding, and the gift of watching a first-rate intellect at work.