‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk

An oddity, a literary twister, profound yet hollow. At a remote, coastal home, ‘an artist comes to stay’ and by his absence causes emotional havoc in the mindset of his host, M. And he doesn’t come alone.

Second Place is the first-person testimony of writer, M, who invites a renowned painter, L, to stay in the luxuriously renovated outbuildings of her marshland home. A ‘collector’ of people, M enjoys the complexities of character to offset her everyday of life on a property with her much-loved but taciturn husband, Tony. Solid, practical, dependendable, Tony is much more at home on his tractor alone in the middle of a field than sitting around a fire in a social setting. But L, whilst showing interest in the invitation, takes more than a year to arrive. And with him comes Brett, a beautiful, wealthy younger woman who immediately hits it off with Justine, M’s 21-year-old daughter.

Cusk’s book, told in the single voice of M, is little more than a philosophical monlogue, told in the form of letters to an unexplained ‘Jeffers’. Sense of time and place are absent but, in isolation and with seemingly restricted movement, there’s a hint of post-pandemic or environmental change having affected life in general. Second Place is a quest for self-understanding, self-contemplation or self-confirmation as M reflects and ponders on the meaning of art, parenting and mother-daughter relationships, monogamy, fate, privilege. The underlying arrogance of L as he seems to want to destroy M and her security is as inexplicable as it is extraordinary – he is the guest from hell as he remains aloof from the family, contributing little yet determining to paint vast murals on the interior walls of the tastefully decorated guest accommodation. So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to M reflects of herself when she sees the wanton destruction – and chooses to do nothing.

Second Place is loosely based on Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos and the author’s tumultuous friendship with D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda during the time the couple stayed at her artists’ colony in New Mexico in 1932. It is a challenging read, both in terms of its actual narrative in the perils of hosting such a guest and the subsequent battle of wills, but also stylistically in its monotone, singularly-paced unveiling indulgence. Essentially, Cusk’s novel is simply dull.

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