Friday 25 June 2021


>> Read all Stella's reviews.


Second Place by Rachel Cusk      {Reviewed by STELLA}
Cruelty is never too far from the surface of the latest Rachel Cusk novel, Second Place. M owns an idyllic home on the marshland with her second husband Tony. They have rescued the land and built a home for themselves in this remote and abundant place, and share it, that is the cottage—the Second Place—by invitation. M has been fascinated by the art of L since an early encounter with his work in Paris after a nightmarish experience on a train, an experience that the reader is never fully informed about, yet the spectacular—a devil, metaphorical or real—remains as a threat throughout. So when M, after years of obsession with L, finally convinces the artist to come and stay, to retreat and paint, her expectations, as you can anticipate, are high. Her expectations of fulfilment, creatively and psychologically, are painfully ridiculous in a middle-aged, privileged sense. What does she expect from this special bond with L? When L arrives—by private jet of a friend’s cousin—with said friend in tow, the beautiful and young Brett, M is miffed. You can’t help but feel little empathy for her. Her desires are unreasonable and ethically questionable, let alone uncomfortable. M’s obsession with a self-seeking, seemingly loathsome and churlish fading artist is misguided at best. Add to the mix M’s daughter Justine and her German boyfriend Kurt, arrived from Berlin as their jobs pack in due to a downward economy (and Covid—although this isn’t mentioned by Cusk), and the perfect pressure cooker for a melodrama is set. The novel is told as to ‘Jeffers’ by letter. We never meet Jeffers and have little knowledge of who Jeffers is and why he plays such an important role as confidant to M. What we can decipher later, from the afterword, is that the novel is inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, published in 1932 (there’s a contemporary review in the New York Times archive) about D.H.Lawrence’s stay at her artist retreat in New Mexico. Here too, is a story of obsession and delusion, and letters to Robinson Jeffers about Mabel’s experience with the Lawrences. Yet you don’t need to know this to find the writing compelling, the prose poised and the content both farcical (the storyline of Kurt deciding to be a writer and his ‘reading’ is priceless) and unsettling. It will make you squirm. This is a novel about ownership—who owns whom—and the power or agency of one over the other or the ideas of the other. M will come to despise L and L already despises M, and sets out to destroy her. Yet his ability to do so is compromised by his own weakness, according to M. And here lies the dilemma: the narrator. You can’t like her. Her complete preoccupation with herself and her property, whitewashed, much like the walls of the cottage, with a veneer of care, is revealed in her asides to Jeffers and by her knowing attitude about the creative process within the isolation of someone basically just talking to themselves. Yet, the novel reverberates within its clichés and set-ups to bring the reader to the eye-watering conclusion that Cusk has cleverly played a game of cards where most of the best cards are hers—and the reader is in second place.

No comments:

Post a Comment