Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Faber and Faber| 4 May 2021| 208 pages| My own copy| 4*

Second Place by Rachel Cusk was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021.

Synopsis – 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.

My thoughts: I enjoyed Second Place, but not as much as I had hoped. The narrator is a writer, a woman known only as ‘M’. The book is a series of letters she writes to Jeffers, a friend and also a writer, in which M pours out her thoughts and perceptions in a stream of consciousness .The location, near a coast, is extremely well defined and I had a clear picture of where ‘M’ lived and its setting, although there is no indication of where it is in the world. But the time period is not specified and you only know that some event has taken place that has disrupted the economy and that travel is difficult – maybe climate change, or a pandemic, although these events are not mentioned.

The ‘second place’ of the title is a cottage that M and her husband, Tony, have renovated and furnished, where their visitors stay. It’s also the relationship that develops between her and ‘L’, a well-known artist, she invites to stay at the cottage. He upsets her when he arrives, unexpectedly bringing with him Brett, a beautiful young woman. And then he continues to disrupt her life. In addition, M’s daughter Justine is also visiting, along with her Kurt, her German partner, expecting to stay in the cottage. She is most upset at having to give it up for L and Brett. It all makes for a bit of a nightmare situation.

I found it a puzzling book. It raises several unanswered questions and it is not a novel you read for its plot, as that is secondary to the fluctuating relationships and interactions, between the characters. Having read D. H. Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, I’d had an inkling that L was based on D H Lawrence and indeed in her Acknowledgement at the end of the book Cusk refers to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D H Lawrence stayed with her in Taos, New Mexico. She acknowledges that her version of that event is intended as a tribute to her spirit. I think I’d have a clearer picture of it if I reread it, because knowing what comes later, the earlier scenes would be more meaningful.

7 thoughts on “Second Place by Rachel Cusk

  1. Hmmm…..I can see how you’d have mixed feelings about this one, Margaret. I do like a novel with a strong sense of place. The characters sound complex and multi-layered, too. But I’m not sure about the fact that the plot is not the main focus. I must admit I prefer a novel with a clear plot. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linear, but I do like it to be clear, if that makes sense.

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    1. Margot, I didn’t mean to give the impression that the plot isn’t clear. It is clear. It’s just not the main focus, the time and place don’t seem to be important either, as it’s the characters, their thoughts, feelings and relationships, that are the main focus.

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  2. I wish I had known about the D H Lawrence and Mabel Dodge connection before starting, so I could have read a bit about it beforehand, to enjoy the references more. This was my first Cusk, and though I had some reservations, I’m keen to try some of her earlier books, as a result.

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    1. The first book of Cusk’s I read was Arlington Park, which I loved. It was nominated for the Orange Prize, but lost out to Half a Yellow Sun. I wrote a long post about it – – if you’re interested. I’ve also read The Bradshaw Variations, which I didn’t think was quite as good. In both novels not a lot happens on the surface but there is plenty going on underneath.

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