Coventry, Cusk’s first collection of essays, marks a deeper and steadier unpacking of the process by which one arrives at, and survives, the upheaval of disbelief. If, as Cusk observes, ‘‘[s]tories only work … through the suspension of our disbelief’’, this suspension comes at a cost: it risks jeopardising one’s ‘‘relationship with reality. Like gravity, truth can only be resisted for so long: it waits, greyly, for the fantasy to wear off’’.
The collection as a whole might be taken as an extension and interrogation of this dilemma: what happens, she asks, when one is no longer willing to suspend this disbelief in regard to various aspects of the social contract? How does one live in the absence of narratives previously accepted in blind faith?
The essays are wide-ranging and razor-sharp, rippling with erudite wit as they shift easily from the philosophical to the personal. They are divided into three sections, the first of which meticulously unpacks aspects of modern life – from slow drivers, to the raising of teenagers, the experience of marriage and divorce, home renovations and the etiquette of change rooms and airport security queues. At their core, each essay interrogates the accepted social codes that govern such experiences and tracks Cusk’s own journeys of defection. The second section addresses more directly the question of how one makes art and the third draws together Cusk’s responses to a series of fellow writers and publishing trends.
Among the highlights is the title essay Coventry, in which Cusk recounts the childhood experience of being punished by her parents through silence: ‘‘Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There’s a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it’s called being sent to Coventry.’’
Cusk comes to understand that her exclusion is a conspiracy: ‘‘It would be hard to send someone to Coventry who refused to believe they were there.’’ In participating in her parent’s narrative, she was complicit in the construction of her own identity as an outcast. As an adult, however, when this experience repeats itself, she chooses to remain an exile in Coventry, willingly defecting from the family story.
Other standouts include Lions on Leashes, in which Cusk discusses parenting adolescents. Parental power, she argues, is invested in the maintenance and upkeep of the agreed-upon family story. But it is the ‘‘shadowless account of parenthood’’ that gives rise to the damning vision of raising teenagers. This bleak narrative emerges, Cusk says, due to the dominant ‘‘public narrative of parenthood’’, which is relentlessly positive and deliberately overlooks the experience of ambivalence.
In later parts, Cusk turns her attention to art, taking in her stride the Basilica di San Francesco, the value of creative writing programs and the work of Louise Bourgeois. Here it is impossible to overlook the power of Shakespeare’s Sisters, in which Cusk considers the condition of ‘‘women’s writing’’ in light of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
How, she asks, might the contemporary female writer find a way of creating ‘‘her own literature’’ in an era when ‘‘the sheer intolerance’’ for subjects ‘‘of domesticity and motherhood and family life’’ is so apparent?
In this collection, Cusk clearly distances herself from the role of the storyteller. Instead, she becomes a truthsayer, fuelled by a moral imperative. Narrative, she argues, depends upon the performance and acceptance of authority: someone is controlling the story. In conceding to this power, the truth of divergent experience risks being obscured. With her magnifying eye re-directing the heat of the sun, Cusk burns holes in the protective stories with which we shroud ourselves. Perhaps, she suggests, peace is achieved not when narratives fail, but when they are surpassed.