English author Rachel Cusk is best known for her Outline trilogy, a series of books in which she was hailed by some as “reinventing the novel”. Her latest novel, Second Place, might be more traditional or conventional in that sense but it is no less startling. Second Place takes as its inspiration Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time DH Lawrence came to stay with her at her home in Taos, New Mexico. That memoir included a third party, a poet named Jeffers. All three of these “characters” survive into Cusk’s narrative.
The whole of Second Place is a correspondence of sorts by a woman called M with a person called Jeffers. M narrates the story of her encounter with a famous artist called L. M relates an experience she had when she first saw L’s work fifteen years before and she has now invited him to stay with her and her second husband Tony on their remote marshland property. M and Tony have constructed a small extra house on the property, known as the ‘Second Place’ which they have often offered to artists to use as a retreat. Into the mix also are M’s young adult daughter Justine and her German boyfriend Kurt and then, unexpectedly L’s beautiful young female companion Brett.
While there is a narrative of the impact of the unthinking L on the slightly obsessed M, there is plenty going on beneath the surface of Second Place, and much to savour in the way these themes are expressed and play out. M muses on the nature of art and artists:
This is the difference, I suppose, between an artist and an ordinary person: the artist can create outside himself the perfect replica of his intentions. The rest of us just create a mess, or something hopelessly wooden, no matter how brilliantly we imagine it. That’s not to say that we don’t all of us have some compartment in which we too are able to achieve ourselves instinctively, to leap without looking, but the bringing of things into permanent existence is an achievement of a different order.
On parenthood and the changing relationship between parents and children:
… and so perhaps it is truer to say, Jeffers, that we can consider our job as parents to have been accomplished without fatal error or wrongdoing when the small child becomes visible once more in the fully grown being.
And on the different ways men and women are seen and treated and treat each other:
Not to have been born in a woman’s body was a piece of luck in the first place: he couldn’t see his own freedom because he couldn’t conceive of how elementally it might have been denied him.
This latter theme is epitomised by the title which, while referring to a house, also is an indicator of how M sees herself and in many ways is treated by L. This is a point that does not go unnoticed by M:
…I said to [Tony] 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.
The slightly mannered narration of Second Place and the movements of the characters through the various spaces in the narrative sometimes gives it the feel of a play. The characters bounce off each other in a confined space, often giving voice to their inner thoughts and musings. L himself, for all of his creativity is a destructive force, a locus of chaos brought into a formerly stable situation. It is a chaos that M both welcomes and fights against, as it starts to unravel the life she has built for herself and her family. Cusk does not provide any easy answers for M but allows her to achieve some measure of understanding and greater self-awareness.
Second Place is a book packed with both feeling and meaning. It poses questions about a range of issues and then proceeds to explore them deeply in the context of a slowly unfolding drama. It is beautiful, deep and sometimes confronting and confirms Cusk even as she “returns” to a more traditional novel form as a writer worth seeking out.