A woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. Over the course of one hot summer, his provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally between our internal and external worlds. With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Second Place is deeply affirming of the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.
This was my first Rachel Cusk and, oh boy, it was a challenging read, make no mistake!
Our narrator is M – and I have never liked the use of letters for names as if to grant anonymity to fictional characters – who is a writer and claims to have met the devil on a train in Paris. As you do. It presages a breakdown of some kind which is only staved off by a random encounter with a painting by L – a self portrait in which the artists appears
at about the distance you might keep between yourself and a stranger. He looks almost surprised to see himself: he gives that stranger a glance that is as objective and compassionless as any glance in the street.
M responds to the painting with pity – “the kind of wordless pity a mother might feel for her mortal child, who nonetheless she brushes and dresses so tenderly” – and feels as if she is being spoken to, hearing, when she looks at the image, the words “I am here”.
Fifteen years later, M is married to Tony and living on the marsh with a house and land on which they have built another building – the eponymous second place – which is used as a somewhat elitist guest house when it is not being lived in by her daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt. M invites L to stay at the marsh, for reasons that were not immediately apparent: I mean, fifteen years had elapsed, and Cusk doesn’t really make it clear what prompted the invitation. It just open the next scene with “One day I wrote to L…”
The quiet haven that M has built up around herself and Tony, almost reclusive in their marsh, is disrupted in many ways by L’s arrival – not least in his arriving with the beautiful and talented young lady, Brett, and in his refusal to engage with M herself. In fact this latter serves one of the most cruel moments in the book when M cries out that
‘If you’re going to paint anyone,then surely it ought to be me!’
He looked at me with a faintly quizzical expression.
‘But I can’t really see you,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ I asked, and I believe it was the utterance that lay at the furthest bottom of my soul, the thing I had always been asking and still wanted to ask, because I had never yet received an answer.
The events in the novel – which are largely based on the real life visit of D. H. Lawrence to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s New Mexico artists’ colony, which she published in a memoir – are not the challenge. It was Cusk’s writing style and language.
Aping Luhan, Cusk also addresses the novel to a mysterious absent “Jeffers” – Luhan addresses her memoir to the poet Robinson Jeffers – which was a conceit that I found offputting and unnecessary. It meant that the narrative became very meandering, assuming knowledge that the audience did not have, bouncing between past, present and future. And yet the voice of M was extraordinarily heightened and self conscious, playing to a register more akin a a philosophical lecture, or a psychoanalyst’s clinic than a letter. Sentences spun over and around themselves throwing words around so wildly that it seemed to strip them of meaning.
I have often wondered, Jeffers, whether true artists are people who have succeeded in discarding or marginalising their inner reality quite early on, which might explain how someone can know so much about life with one side of themselves, while understanding nothing about it at all with another. After I met Tony, and learned to override my own concept of reality, I became aware of how widely and indiscriminately I was capable of imagining things, and how coldly I could consider the products of my own mind.
I am not entirely sure passages like this actually mean anything, do they? What on earth is a person’s “inner reality”? Why would you want to discard it – or marginalise or override it? If you discard your inner reality, what is left? Maybe I am just not smart enough or wide enough to understand these ideas, but it sounds – I hate to say it – rather pretentious to me. Don’t get me wrong: I love me a good polysyllabic word and complex sentence – and I adore the fact that my daughter uses “whilst” and “midst” instead of “while” and middle” despite her language delays and challenges which make the ‘s’ sound particularly tricky for her to articulate – and as just demonstrated I enjoy a good meander and detour, but this register just did not work for me at all. It was a distraction.
In fairness to Cusk, though, we were pre-warned about M who “felt a burning need to speak, to analyse, to get these feelings out of me into the open where I could see them and walk around them”. And, oh boy does she do that!
And beside the high register language, there was also some rather obvious moments where I felt a little patronised that Cusk felt the need to explain the ambiguity in the name second place: M felt that
‘second place’ pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life – that it had been a near miss, requiring just as much effort as victory but with that victory always and forever somehow denied me by a force that I could only describe as the force of pre-eminence. I could never win, and the reason I couldn’t seemed to lie within certain infallible laws of destiny that I was powerless – as the woman I was – to overcome.
Whereas for Tony, “It means parallel world. Alternative reality.” Yes, I got that duality. From the title. Yes I realised that the two characters would have those different interpretations. Equally, the disruptive and destructive intrusion of L into M and Tony’s little world where they cared for nature – husbanded it – did not really need the rather obvious painted image of the Garden of Eden to make the link, did it? Nor do I think the simple equation of M and Eve that L makes is entirely fair or accurate.
There were moments I did love in the book when Cusk was writing more concretely about her characters and allowed humour to creep in. Brett’s utter rudeness to M throughout is delicious:
‘Would you believe it,’ she said, ‘but I can’t sleep against this fabric. It irritates my skin – I woke up this morning with a face like a broken mirror! Do you have anything softer?’
She stepped closer, across the line that generally separates one person from another, when they’re not intimately acquainted. Her skin looked perfectly fine even at close quarters, glowing with youth and health. She wrinkled her little nose and peered at my face.
‘Do you have this fabric on your bed too? It looks like it might be having the same effect on you.’
The cultural soiree when Kurt – languishing without job or income and deciding to become a writer, he has hidden himself in the study all week to start writing his novel – requests the chance to read to the assembled company. With a block of paper an inch thick of derivative Tolkienesque narrative – “with dragons and monsters and armies of imaginary creatures interminably fighting one another, and great lists of names like in parts of the Old Testament, and pages of oracular-sounding dialogue” – he proceeds to read the entire thing. L’s response – which I will not spoil – was priceless.
And the scenes between Justine and M were at times exquisite depictions of or explorations of a mother and daughter still learning how to get along. And the skinny dipping scene between them was wonderful and moving.
What I Liked
- The moments of humour and satire, often conveyed in the dialogue rather than in M’s own narration.
- Brett’s bluntness and ignorance of her own rudeness.
- The depiction of mothers and daughters.
- Cusk’s descriptions both of L’s paintings and of the landscapes of the marsh where “there is no edge. You just get worn down by the slow curvature. I wanted to see what here looks like from there. I walked a long way out, but there is no there – it just sort of dissolves, doesn’t it? There are no lines here at all.”
What Could Have Been Different
- The narrative conceit of the novel as a letter to Jeffers: I wonder what Jeffers’ response to this would be and how much stronger as a novel this would be if it were truly epistolary and we heard his replies.
- M’s narrative voice which for me hit the wrong register for either the novel or the conceit that this was a letter to Jeffers.
- Somewhat pretentious language.