Rachel Cusk once hailed Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume My Struggle cycle as "perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times". The same description could be applied to Cusk's own foray into the realm of semi-autobiographical fiction. Art brilliantly and beautifully imitated life in her acclaimed Outline trilogy, without any of Knausgaard's narrative-clogging clutter.
That trio of books set Cusk gloriously back on track. Her previous work, Aftermath (2012), a candid memoir that dealt with the disintegration of her marriage, was painfully overwrought and maddeningly narcissistic.
Those who remain unconvinced by, or antagonistic to, Cusk's non-fiction, are more than likely to give her latest book a wide berth. Coventry is her first collection of essays, the main section of which is devoted to personal memoir. It doesn't bode well: that section opens with a piece called Driving as Metaphor (any metaphor that needs to be flagged up and spelt out lacks potency) and ends with a 30-page essay called Aftermath, an early version of the first chapter of the book of the same name. Cue further bouts of self-absorption and over-egged drama.
The opposite is actually the case. With the exception of Aftermath which, to these ears, still hits all the wrong notes, Cusk's essays prove to be elegant, stimulating and insightful. In one section she focuses on what might be best termed as cultural issues. There is art criticism, an account of a pilgrimage to Assisi (excerpted from Cusk's memoir The Last Supper) and a piece on the ins and outs, and pros and cons, of creative writing workshops. Last but by no means least is an enlightening study of "women's writing", which begins by centring seminal texts by Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir and expands to bring in other female authors and characters. Another section on literary criticism gathers introductions to books and reviews of both contemporary and classic fiction. Cusk writes incisively on Edith Wharton, Olivia Manning and the recently revived Natalia Ginzburg. Francoise Sagan's bittersweet Bonjour Tristesse is shrewdly summed up as "a masterly portrait of primal human bonds"; D H Lawrence's The Rainbow is persuasively judged "mysterious and miraculous", and Elizabeth Gilbert's awful Eat, Pray, Love is provocatively placed in a tradition that includes Jane Austen and Helen Fielding.
And yet, at the risk of drawing scorn from the naysayers, it is the personal memoir section of the book that is the most engrossing. Driving as Metaphor turns out to be an astute piece of writing that starts small but grows in significance. Cusk explains how in the rural area where she lives, the "narrow and burrow-like" coastal roads are frequently blocked by slow drivers, farmers with tractors and tourists with caravans. Fast drivers speed through her village, threatening children and wildlife – although not stoats or weasels, which manage to "zoom triumphantly across the road like a funny undulating moustache, too cunning to be caught."
After a catalogue of seemingly aimless gripes, a personal angle slides into view. Cusk articulates her fears and frustrations behind the wheel, her confusion when using hire cars abroad and her wonderment at the "elect" who have never learnt to drive ("How did they know not to do it?"). She also posits an argument: "it may be that the increasing luxury of the world inside the car is a kind of consolation for the degradation of the world outside it." Another highlight is the book's eponymous essay. Taking its lead from the expression "being sent to Coventry" – shunned or ostracised – Cusk examines the cold shoulder and silent treatment she has received from her parents and former husband, and recalls "the cold and calculated process of exclusion" that marred some of her fellow pupils' schooldays.
Inevitably, Cusk turns her attention to the English city and its near-destruction in the Second World War. But this predictable detour ends up opening avenues of inquiry. Looking at a photograph of Coventry Cathedral the day after its bombardment causes Cusk to reflect on transience and fragility. Everything, she notes, "no matter how painstakingly built and preserved, no matter how apparently timeless and resilient, can be broken". Later, it occurs to her that she may feel safer in Coventry, "a place where the worst has already happened".
“Theoretically, there should be nothing there to fear.”
A third standout essay, On Rudeness, explores the hostility Cusk has discerned in British society since the Brexit referendum. Here and elsewhere we find traces of preciousness ("I think about clothes, their strange promise, the way their problems so resemble the problems of love") plus literary references that can feel decorative rather than illustrative. For the most part, though, whether expounding on the trials of motherhood or the works of Kazuo Ishiguro, Cusk entertains and edifies in equal measure.