Cusk is not an ideologue or a rhetorician. She is not out to dictate or persuade. The essay form – in the sense of an assay – is perfect for her ruminative nature and for her preference for extended metaphor over analysis. She likes to complicate rather than simplify, to shift between startling concrete images and philosophic generalizations that she will soon acknowledge to be compromised. However, in terms of content, recurrent themes emerge, both in the more personal pieces and in critical essays on subjects ranging from Edith Wharton and D. H. Lawrence to Louise Bourgeois and Françoise Sagan.
Despite her return to autobiography, the authorial mask is not completely removed, and the essays are stronger for it. The voice is more expansive than in her memoirs, imbued with an authority that is all the more powerful because it is diffuse and flexible, aware of its limited perspective and willing to be measured against those of others. Cusk occasionally cedes the narrative to long anecdotes relayed by friends and acquaintances — an echo of her recent novelistic strategy. At other moments, her perspective becomes disembodied and panoramic, as in an essay on driving that considers the roads of the English countryside from the viewpoints of pedestrians and drivers, which becomes a metaphor for the “peculiar difficulty in attaining objectivity.”... Cusk, like the best artists, has renovated her work from its deepest interior — the self — transforming her private crises into an expansive aesthetic vision. She believes entirely in D. H. Lawrence’s claim that “one is in oneself the whole of mankind,” and her essays reveal how profoundly this individualistic vision suffuses her work, even when she is not physically “there.”
Coventry is Cusk’s first book of essays, though some of her memoirs might well be categorised as extended essays or think pieces. This collection is fiercely intelligent, with enviable prose that is at once luminous and precise... The best essays in the book are the long lyrical ones that take the reader on confident, if circuitous, journeys.
All six personal essays here are approachable but substantial, and show that the subtle intelligence, close observation and leaps of thought which Cusk displayed in her acclaimed trilogy of novels Outline, Transit and Kudos, had been in evidence in her non-fiction all along. Sometimes I found myself arguing with her approach while I read a piece (such as her view on how to adapt Euripides’s Medea for modern understanding), then afterwards deciding I would steal that view myself.