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.