When reviewing Second Place ↗, I wrote of Cusk:
And there are moments of beauty! I think, at the end of the day, Cusk should be an essayist, and perhaps this is her way of doing so. Her writing is so fascinating and her stories are so bad.
My prayers, it appears, have been answered. Here is a dense, keen collection of essays (published actually prior to Second Place, so my bad on the cause-and-effect of it all) focusing on what Cusk so often focuses on: the intersections of modernity and femininity, the duty of art and the duty of the artist. It is very easy to squint a little at this book and imagine it as part of the Outline trilogy, each essay being instead regurgitated by a sockpuppet character encountered by the formless narrator as opposed to being presented ex nihilo.
Without the loose shackles of a narrative to afford the pretense of a gestalt, you’re much more focused on each individual essay as they stand. And they stand well: I think Cusk is a very strong critic, a writer who can deliver both insight and turn of phrase in equal turn. She has her beat, to be sure (and one that she converses with directly, in the penultimate essay, tying this book a little bit into the tradition of The Second Sex and A Room Of One’s Own)
That being said, it’s not a revelatory book of essays. They surprise and cohere and feel inessential. I enjoyed reading them, but I do not think that they would be worth the discourse if they hadn’t come from an author who’s made her name in slightly more oblique ways. If you like Cusk, and her vein of writing — an emphasis on keenness over novelty, an emphasis on precision over impact — you will like her writing here, but this is not Didion — this is not near the top of my list of things to recommend to folks for readings' sake alone.