It’s good to know up front that Rachel Cusk’s new book is a hectic one-read scavenger hunt, as the plot seems static and bare at first glance. In the flattest description, the novel is about a woman’s frustrating experiences after inviting an artist she admires to stay at her guesthouse.
The real action in “Second Place” is inside the head of the narrator, known only as M, whom we meet through the discursive journal type letter that makes up the book. M is bitterly observant, emotionally marked and a lot of fun at the same time. We never learn as much about her life as we would like, but she inspires readers to consider their own existence through her ruminations on human relationships, identity, art and power. Some of M’s interior landscapes will be familiar to readers of Cusk’s other books, which range from a brutally honest motherhood memoir to an unconventional fictional trilogy about a British writer. (Cusk lives in London.)
We know that M, an author, has survived past domestic trauma and now lives in an isolated swamp with her second husband, Tony. They built a guest house, the “second place” of the title, where M’s artistic knowledge sometimes makes pilgrimages to rest and create. The informal sponsorship satisfies M’s need to absorb the “higher things” in life that she needs, unlike Tony, who is stable, calm and competent.
M writes to tell the artist – known only as L – that an exhibition of his paintings had transformed his life 15 years ago. She invites him to come and discover their property and their hospitality.
Her deep motivations are vague but gradually become clearer: M wants to be seen as she really is, darkness included, through the amoral – even cruel – gaze of the artist. For her, “second place” is not just the guesthouse, it is the unfortunate turning points in her own life and the hidden struggles of being a woman.
It seems, writes M, that “I could never win, and the reason I couldn’t seem to me to lie in certain infallible laws of fate that I was powerless – as a woman that I was – to overcome” .
When the artist accepts M’s invitation, the situation quickly escalates. He arrives with an uninvited companion: a young lady from the fashionable world who couldn’t be more different from middle-aged M. Far from being M’s salvation, the artist seems to take pleasure in provoking her. Meanwhile, Justine, M’s 21-year-old daughter, and Justine’s boyfriend have also joined the household.
Much of the story is based on seemingly mundane questions that contain tense, smoking calls for closure – the genre that wouldn’t be out of place in a period drama. Will the artist ever paint M? Will he at least see the swampy landscape from his house the way she does? What does she want from him, and vice versa?
And the friction between M and L is as constant as that between a stubborn match and its box.
As M says, “When the easterly wind blows over the swamp, everything feels very cool and contrary, even in hot weather – well, L was sort of an easterly wind, and like that wind, it is fixed on the spot and installed to blow.
The book is dizzying but also captivating and stimulating, elliptically appealing to echoes of everything from Rousseau’s paintings to “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler ”from El Konigsburg.
And if its setup seems old-fashioned, there is more than one reason: the author notes that the book “owes a debt to ‘Lorenzo in Taos’, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir from 1932 to when DH Lawrence was came to live with her in Taos, New Mexico. “It is intended, writes Cusk, as a tribute to the spirit of Luhan, a controversial patron of the arts.
Knowing about the tribute clears up some mysteries – both books come in the form of letters written to a recipient named Jeffers, for example. M’s Jeffers is, oddly enough, never explained, although we know that Luhan is the poet Robinson Jeffers. Other parallels in the novel are less clear. Most readers will not be familiar with Luhan’s book; we have to assume that “second place” is meant to be self-sufficient.
Cusk’s turns of phrase are beautiful and his philosophical points are sharp, for example when the artist tells M that he considers himself a beggar. M’s reply reminds him that as a man he operates from a position of favorable circumstances in the first place. “He couldn’t see his own freedom because he couldn’t conceive how it could have been denied to him in an elementary way. Begging was a freedom in itself – it implied at least an equality with the state of need.
Typically, Cusk’s female power dissections are especially insightful when they are closest to home, focusing on the dynamics between mothers and children.
“When Justine was younger there had been a feeling of malleability, of active process, in our relationships, but now that she was a young woman, it was as if time had suddenly passed and we were frozen. in the positions we had taken. at the time of his arrest, ”she wrote.
At the end of the book, the evolution of this mother-daughter relationship is the most astute and satisfying, taking second place behind nothing.