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'Coventry' Touches On Gender, Self-Definition In Taking Control Of One's Narrative

Rachel Cusk is a writer who worries more about truth-telling than likability.

Lambasted for her daringly honest memoirs about her feelings as a new mother (A Life's Work) and her bitter divorce (Aftermath), she retreated — if you can call it that — into an audacious hybrid fictional experiment, the Outline trilogy. In its three volumes — Outline, Transit, and Kudos — her impassive alter-ego, a newly divorced British writer named Faye, is a consummate listener who elicits other people's surprisingly confiding stories. The trilogy, a tour de force that expands the parameters of fiction, explores the very nature of narrative and its relation to self-definition.

Now, a year after Kudos, Cusk is publishing her first essay collection. Coventry takes its title from a British expression: to be sent to Coventry essentially means to be given the silent treatment. It's a punishment Cusk says her parents periodically inflict on her, and not just in the past tense: "Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me." At some point along the way, she writes in this book's title essay, she became comfortable in Coventry, "safer in the silence," and decided to stay.

Which isn't to say that Cusk has been silenced in her work. Quite the contrary. She writes like someone who has been burned and has reacted not with self-censorship but with a doubling-down on clarity. She is blazingly intelligent, a deep, tough-minded thinker (and sometimes over-thinker) whose essays, like the Outline trilogy, are at once freewheeling and exquisitely precise. They fall into three categories: personal, cultural, and literary. To some degree, like her fiction, all involve issues of gender and self-definition by taking control of the narrative of one's life.

These 17 essays are better appreciated when read piecemeal (which is how they were originally published) rather than straight through, but readers will welcome their many insights into Cusk's mindset. She could be discussing her own work when she extols 20th century Italian author Natalia Ginzburg's "unusual objectivity, achieved by a careful use of distance that is never allowed to become detachment," and the way she "separates the concept of storytelling from the concept of the self and in doing so takes a great stride towards a more truthful representation of reality." Sound familiar? Similarly, she writes of Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy: "The 'truth' of a writer's experiences is difficult to unravel, but in these novels the striking impassivity of the point of view is the place to look for it."

No one would ever call Cusk a poster child for domesticity, but her view of marriage and motherhood seems to have softened with time and the influence of a soft-spoken, solicitous second husband. Contrary to friends' scary warnings, she hasn't found her two daughters' teenage years nightmarish, though in the wonderfully titled "Lions on Leashes," she compares adolescence to divorce, with "its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: there are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other."

In "Making Home," Cusk explores the self-definition involved in the creation of domestic spaces, and expresses her preference for an atmosphere of laxity, tolerance and generosity — as opposed to the compulsive perfectionism she felt in the homes her mother created, "where the nicest rooms were the ones no one was allowed to use." She has tried to take a more supportive and less autocratic role in her daughters' lives: "I have played down the domestic work I do as if it were something contagious I don't want them to catch," she writes, though she worries that she has made herself "of no importance." In a lovely image that could also apply to the authorial role in her fiction, she writes:

Cusk's jabs at her parents — reminiscent of Julian Barnes' enduring animosity toward his mother — suggest that her childrearing philosophy evolved largely in antithesis to her own upbringing. In "On Rudeness" she asks, "In a world as unmannerly as this one, how is it best to speak?" She again acknowledges how her sharp outspokenness enraged her parents, and concludes that "We teach children that it is rude to be honest, to say, 'This tastes disgusting' or 'That lady is fat.'" But I think she misses the point: The lesson isn't that it's rude to be honest; rather, that it's rude to be hurtful. Good manners — which she touts as a worthy aim in today's rampantly crass world — require sensitivity to others' feelings and respecting boundaries.

Not all of the essays feel essential; a short piece on artist Louise Bourgeois and another on Edith Wharton add little to the collection. But Cusk's appreciation of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, in which she flags several qualities she welcomes in literature — subversive frankness, generosity, forward-thinking — made me want to unearth my old copy.

Reading Coventry, at times I found myself wishing for some charm or humor. Neither are qualities Cusk prizes, as she makes clear in an article on Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, which she finds distastefully egotistic and attention-grabbing. Cusk is no ingratiator; this uncompromisingly serious writer would rather live in Coventry than win us over by sugarcoating the truth.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.