Second Place by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy challenged my understanding of the novel. It is so unlike what I expect from plot or character, that I now no longer read contemporary fiction the same way. As described in the New Yorker, Cusk effected a ‘gut-renovation’ of the form, crumbling literary conventions, and her latest novel, Second Place, continues this revamp in riveting ways.
Second Place begins with the narrator, M, a writer, describing an unnerving encounter with a devil-like figure on a Paris train. This encounter, along with the art exhibition she viewed the day before, completely uproots M’s life. The paintings, by L, have a profound effect on her – immediate and free, they are bold declarations of a self that contains the whole world. Fifteen years later, now living on a salt marsh on the English coast with her second husband Tony, the narrator invites L to stay on their land, in the ‘second place’. She thinks the artist will truly see the landscape where others have failed. But she also hopes he will see her, and show her who she really is.
M is a quintessential Cusk character – smart, a little hazy around the edges; a woman in crisis, stirring things up. Her quest for freedom teeters on the destructive. Cusk has drawn inspiration from Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of D.H. Lawrence’s fraught visit to her artists colony in New Mexico. Cusk calls Lawrence her ‘mentor’; The Rainbow is one of her favourite books. While a brief epilogue explains that Second Place is a tribute to Luhan’s spirit, it is arguably also Cusk’s exploration of her own artistic relationship to Lawrence’s legacy.
Cusk’s novels sit between reverie and reality; she’s always at the centre of them, even if she’s tangibly invisible. For fiction, Second Place is painfully truthful about relationships, desire, and art. I love it for this.