Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Cusk’s latest novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, is narrated by M, a female writer – probably in her late thirties or early forties, certainly at a pivotal point in her life. M and her husband, Tony (the strong, silent type), live amid a remote, rural landscape within touching distance of the marshlands – somewhere in France, I think. The couple’s land also includes another property, the titular ‘second place’ representing one interpretation of the novel’s title (but perhaps not the only meaning of the term). Having demolished the original building and rebuilt it brick by brick, M and Tony now see the second place as a creative retreat, the kind of setting where writers and artists can hopefully find inspiration while choosing to remain distanced, should they so desire. 

Early in the novel, it becomes clear that M wishes to invite a male artist, L, to spend time in the second place. While M has not met this artist in person before, she feels deeply drawn to his work. Some fifteen years earlier, a chance encounter with L’s paintings at a Paris exhibition catalysed a moment of revelation for M, prompting her to leave her first husband and father of her daughter, Justine – now in her early twenties and living at home.

I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it. (pp. 12-13, Faber)

M writes to L, inviting him to spend some time at the retreat – and in time, following a few false starts, L accepts, suddenly confirming his arrival like a bolt from the blue. M’s hope seems to be two-fold: firstly, that L will be able to capture the essence of the marshlands, a place of ‘desolation, and solace and mystery’ (other artists have tried in the past without complete success); secondly, that L will unlock something at the centre of M’s soul, a recognition perhaps of her individuality.

However, when M and Tony go to collect L at the harbour, a surprise awaits. L has brought a companion with him, a beautiful young English woman named Brett, who immediately unsettles M with her barbed, penetrating comments and invasion of personal space. To M, Brett also represents a rival for L’s attentions / affections, particularly with her liberated attitude and ‘ravishing’ looks.

While L presents as self-centred and cushioned from the realities of the world, he also evokes a sense of mystery and allure. For the narrator, the presence of L (and Brett as an uninvited interloper) destabilises her existence, causing M to question some fundamental self-perceptions, most notably her self-control and usual ability to reign everything in. Yet, while the emotions M experiences are deeply unnerving, there is a recognition of some potential positives, too – the opening up of new possibilities, a new form of liberty, perhaps.  

But I had already understood that this was to be the keynote of my dealings with him, this balking of my will and of my vision of events, the wresting from me of control in the most intimate transactions, not by any deliberate act of sabotage on his part but by virtue of the simple fact that he himself could not be controlled. Inviting him into my life had been all my affair! And I saw suddenly, that morning, that this loss of control held new possibilities for me, however angry and ugly and out of sorts it had made me feel so far, as though it were itself a kind of freedom. (p. 61)

As the scenario unfolds, a battle of wits plays out between these two individuals. M is confronted by the ‘compartmentalised nature’ of her personality, how she keeps things in separate chambers, ultimately deciding what to show to other people and what to conceal. L, it seems, has a knack for making others see themselves without being able to do very much about what is revealed. There is a sense that M’s self-perception of a life ‘built on love and freedom of choice’ is being challenged here, potentially revealing a weak kind of selfishness underneath. Throughout this dance, M vacillates between craving L’s affection and trying to protect herself against him, ultimately to the risk of her relationship with Tony.

There is much to admire in this elegantly constructed novel of discontentment, control and freedom – in particular, what ‘freedom’ represents for men vs women. (To M, L’s paintings convey an ‘aura of absolute freedom’, a freedom that is ‘elementally and unrepentantly male’.) Cusk’s prose is precise and beautifully judged, her observations on the psychological dynamics are sharp and insightful. And yet, reflecting on this novel as a whole, I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say. There are several very funny scenes here, not least given the tensions sparked by Brett and her presence in the mix. For instance, within minutes of meeting her hosts, Brett is touching M’s hair, declaring it to be ‘quite dry’ and suggesting ways to camouflage the grey discretely. Ouch!

Justine’s boyfriend, Kurt, is another source of amusement with his attempts to be a writer, complete with black velvet housecoat and red tam-o’-shanter hat. However, to view it as merely a social comedy or a standard novel of mid-life, middle-class discontentment might be too simple a reading. There seems to be something deeper going on here, more threatening in certain respects.

Perhaps Cusk is asking us as readers to consider our own lives, replete with their inherent facades and misconceptions? Prompting us to turn the mirror on ourselves, as M might be hinting here through her questions to Jeffers (the intended recipient of M’s narrative account).

Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? (p.7)

Interestingly, the novel is set against the backdrop of some kind of recent global crisis. The economy has collapsed, resulting in a devaluation of L’s art, together with the disappearance of Justine’s and Kurt’s former jobs. Travel has also been severely restricted, possibly suggesting a nod to the current pandemic, although the specific nature of the catastrophe is never fully revealed.

At the end of the book, Cusk explains that her novel ‘owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico’. In her version, Cusk has chosen to cast a painter (L) in the notional role of Lawrence, but the book is intended to be a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. As I understand it, Luhan and Lawrence had a fractured relationship, with Luhan oscillating between devotion and a form of retreat. The sense of emptiness she experienced in his absence was keenly felt. As a consequence of the visit, Lawrence threatened to ‘destroy’ Luhan – and this element of danger is mirrored in the Cusk.

Dorian has also written about the book here – a perspective that is well worth reading, particularly given his familiarity with D. H. Lawrence’s life and work.

Second Place is published by Faber; personal copy.

47 thoughts on “Second Place by Rachel Cusk

  1. MarinaSofia

    I’ve been curious about this novel, having previously loved Cusk but had some reservations about the Outline trilogy. I thought the setting was Norfolk? I believe Cusk has a house there.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You might well be right about the setting. I’m not sure that it’s ever specified explicitly, but M’s earlier encounter with the paintings in Paris may have pushed me of the direction of France! Norfolk would definitely make sense due to the marshlands, but in other respects its somewhat irrelevant. (It could be set in one of a number of places in Northern Europe.) I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of this book, should you decide to read it – hopefully you’ll be able to enlighten me!

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I’ve only read Arlington Park, which I liked. I get the impression though that her work has got more austere since then (though not quite sure what I mean by that). That’s not a complaint – nothing wrong with a writer progressing – but I’ve been less tempted.

        On the other hand, she’s clearly a very fine writer and I suspect I should give her another try. Just not sure with which.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No worries at all. I just tried to move it, but that’s not going to work as it’ll look as if I’m talking to myself (which would seen kind of apt given the elusive nature of this book)! Yes, I had the same impression, about her work getting more austere and mysterious over time. She’s worth another try for sure, and it would be great to hear how you get on. I’m fascinated by the fact that this one has made it onto the Booker when other very positively received novels (e.g. Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms) have missed out. There must be something to it, even if I’m struggling to see the big picture!

          Reply
  2. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve been looking at this one myself. It sounds like a novel you respect rather than love, or is that unfair? Do you think it’s on the right side of that tricky line between intriguing and merely obscure?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not unfair at all! I think that’s a very apt description. As a writer, Cusk intrigues me, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve loved any of her books. She’s clearly very skilled and her prose is generally very clean and precise, but there’s something elusive about her work, a quality that’s hard to pin down. As for your very astute question about whether Second Place ultimately falls on the right side of intriguing vs obscure, I honestly don’t know! There’s some great stuff in here on a micro level (particularly on the interplay between M, L, Brett and Justine), but I’m not sure the novel as a whole really worked for me. Now, that may well be a failing on my part – maybe I’m just not the right reader for this book? – but it might be something more fundamental whereby the novel is too elusive for its own good. I’m not entirely sure…

      Have you read any of her others? I remember liking Arlington Park when it came out (maybe 15 years ago/), but I struggled with Outline, possibly because it didn’t suit my mood at the time. (It was a someone else’s pick for our book group, so I had to read it within a specific time window, which is often far from ideal!)

      Reply
  3. 1streading

    “And yet, reflecting on this novel as a whole, I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say.” This echoes my experience of Cusk in the past (the first two volumes of the Outline trilogy) – there is much to admire and enjoy in her writing but I found the novels as a whole rather elusive.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not alone, then! In some respects, that’s reassuring to hear. Did you read Outline with your school book group? How did the others get on? Again, I’m fascinated to hear more about the things I missed…

      Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    I’m not a fan of Cusk’s writing and would echo 1streading’s and your own comment. It feels polished but somehow unsatisfying to me. I had wondered if the art theme, for which I have a soft spot, might tempt me to read it in paperback.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did think of you with the art theme! Trying the paperback sounds like a good idea, which I’m guessing will be next year. I actually like the prose in Second Place on a micro sentence-by-sentence level, but it’s the bigger picture that feels somewhat elusive…

      Reply
  5. gertloveday

    I absolutely loved The Country Life,an early book by Cusk, but wasn’t so keen on Arlington Park. Then all the controversy about her books about her marriage put me off. I am most interested to read your review of this her latest book. ( By the way, who did win the Booker Prize this year? I think this book was on the short list.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll take a look at The Country Life as it not one I’m familiar with – thanks for mentioning it. (The fact that it’s one of her early books is interesting because I’m beginning to think they might suit me better than Second Place.) This year’s Booker hasn’t been announced yet. It’s still at the longlist stage with the shortlist to follow in September, then the announcement of the winner in early November. It seems longer than usual this year!

      Reply
  6. Anokatony

    I recently completed ‘Second Place’, and my review will appear some time within the next week or two. I’ve already written it. I certainly agree with your analysis about being unsure of what ‘Second Place’ is trying to say. I found many of Cusk’s sentences to be nearly impenetrable.

    Reply
  7. banff1972

    Thanks for the link, J! Strange book, right? I was pretty taken with it while reading, but it’s left no impression–except the swimming scene, I really do remember that vividly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, totally. And yes, the swimming scene was very striking! I thought the car journey back from the harbour was brilliantly captured. I’ve met women like Brett in real life (the sort that adopts an overfamiliar air within minutes of meeting you), so the excruciating scene in the car felt spot on. That said, I’m glad they eventually found a sense of ease with one another back at the retreat…

      Reply
  8. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Hi Jacquiwine–excellent review as usual! I actually have a (so far unread) copy of Second Place, so I thought it might be my first Rachel Cusk novel (my unfamiliarity with her work is becoming a little embarrassing given all the attention she’s getting these days). Because it’s a Booker nominee I may move it up on my reading list, as I’ve just finished Damon Galgut’s The Promise and would like make my own judgment as to how the two stack up vis à vis the award (hint: The Promise is fantastic; IMO it will be hard to beat!).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it once you’ve finished…
      The Galgut seems to be garnering some very good reviews, so it’s great to know that you rate it very highly too. That must be a hot bet for the shortlist, and possibly the final prize itself!

      Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review, Jacqui, and your response to this book is so interesting! I’ve not read any Cusk but your reaction reminds me a little of mine recently to Duras – there can be much to love in a book, including conjuring of setting and quality of writing, and yet the reader can admire rather than love. That does seem to be the case here, and as you’re obviously not the only one to not quite get what the author was aiming for it’s probably the book not you! Interesting, though, and the writing does seem very good from the quotes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, K. I’ve only read one Duras (Moderato Cantabile), so it’s difficult for me to comment on Duras more generally, but I do recall struggling somewhat that book. It felt quite allusive – and also elusive, if that makes any kind of sense!

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    I’ve never read Cusk, and your review and the comments do have me intrigued. I like a pared-back style but austere makes me think I might not engage with her emotionally, which I do like to do on some level. Maybe one day…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that might have been part of the barrier for me, alongside the enigmatic nature of the novel as a whole. There’s something distancing about it, which fits with the mentions of ‘austere’.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not surprised to hear you say that, Liz. Elizabeth Taylor’s style is very different to Cusk’s. There’s a sharpness to Taylor’s insights, but the tone feels less austere than it is here…

      Reply
  11. Julé Cunningham

    I’ve been curious about Cusk’s work after seeing her name crop up so often, but not quite convinced she’s for me, so your post and everyone’s comments are especially helpful. Maybe a writer more to admire than to feel an immediate connection with and think ‘must read everything by this person’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I don’t think she’s for everyone – and from what I’ve seen so far, responses to this novel seem to be quite mixed. If you’re curious about Cusk, then it’s probably worth trying one of her books just to see how you get on – possibly Outline, which a lot of readers liked.

      Reply
  12. heavenali

    I don’t why but I have thought that I wouldn’t like Rachel Cusk, I feel like someone put me off her work but can’t remember why. However this sounds good, though your comment that you’re not sure what she was getting at gives me pause for thought, it seems her writing has that elusive quality that can be hard to get a handle on.

    Reply
  13. Jane

    Jacqui I’m so admiring of you writing such a thoughtful review of a book that you’re so unsure of! I haven’t read anything by Cusk but I am intrigued now that you’ve asked us for our opinion!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Cusk’s work if you do try it. I dithered about whether or not to post this piece, but in the end I’m glad I put it up. It’s been interesting to see the responses!

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Constance Martin

    I thought I had read one of her books but your review was so intriguing I checked and conclude I have not. I must be confusing her with someone. I know it’s the start off book for September’s Six Degrees meme but probably just a coincidence that you read it now

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I read it because it was on the Booker longlist and sounded intriguing. I’m interested in Cusk as a writer, even if I do find her recent fiction somewhat opaque!

      Reply
  16. lonesomereadereric

    Good to read your response to this. Like you say, I think the book is successful in its scenes of awkward comedy and prompting some questions which inspire self reflection. But, similarly, I’m left feeling uncertain what the book is trying to say overall and the more I think about it the more annoyed I become by the story’s evasiveness.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I keep asking myself what am I missing here? What am I not seeing in terms of the overall picture? So it’s interesting to see that you had some difficulties with it too. After posting this piece, I watched Cusk’s session at the Edinburgh Book Festival in the hope that it might shed some more light on what she’d been trying to achieve, but I came away without any definite answers…

      Reply

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