Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Second Place was my introduction to Rachel Cusk. I quickly became engrossed in the story and wondered why I had expected her writing to be impenetrable. Where had this impression come from? Other readers? Reviews? Her regular appearance on literature award lists? Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised – no, relieved – to find Second Place highly ‘readable’. No persistence required.

In summary, the story is about our narrator, ‘M’, who invites a famed artist, known as ‘L’, to stay in a cottage on her property in a remote coastal region, in the hope that his artistic vision will penetrate her own life and sense of unrest. M’s husband, Tony, offers little resistance to this plan, although he is not particularly enthusiastic about having a guest because also visiting is M’s adult daughter and her boyfriend.

L accepts the invitation, and arrives with a female companion, Brett, which immediately upsets M’s plans for the summer. 

I will not attempt to untangle, or even touch on, all of the themes in this book. It’s loaded with commentary about male privilege, social hierarchy, artistic temperament, the role of the muse and the benefactor, parent-child relationships, isolation, and the disconnection between our internal and external worlds. I suspect that you could read this relatively compact novel (186pp) over and over, each time through a different lens, and find new things to say about it.

Change is also loss, and in that sense a parent can lose a child every day, until you realise that you’d better stop predicting what they’re going to become and concentrate on what is right in front of you.

But one theme stood out for me – the ‘redundancy’ of the middle-aged woman. M immediately made me think of the characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend – as with Wood’s characters, there was a distinct sense of ‘what next’ for M. She considers her ‘mothering’ done, and her life with Tony, her second husband, is content but she recognises that in coming together later in life, they do not share the intimacy provided by a long history. We learn that M has her own creative ambitions, but has not been afforded the time, space or privilege to explore them.

…as I’ve told you I’ve been criticised all my life: it’s how I’ve come to know that I’m there.

What feelings did M evoke in me? I was uncomfortable about her invitation to L because it seemed doomed from the outset – her expectations, although not fully articulated where impossible to fulfill. Additionally, why would L accept the invitation for any reason other than a summer of free rent, with the added bonus of having a fan (redundant female) fawning over him? And M’s predictable envious reaction to Brett? Oh, I see what you did there Cusk, set me up to expect and assume the same of M, as we do for middle-aged women more generally. Clever.

Fear is a habit like any other, and habits kill what is essential in ourselves.

I won’t say more, other than the ending was fitting and re-framed ‘redundancy’ in a remarkable way. And because there was no obvious place to include this, I’ll finish with this interesting quote. Thoughts?

“I’ve often thought it’s fathers who make painters,” he said, “while writers come from their mothers.”
I asked him why he thought that.
“Mothers are such liars,” he said. “Language is all they have. They fill you up with language if you let them.”

3.5/5 I’ll read more Cusk.

I received my copy of Second Place from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

We had a cocktail of some sort in a big jug which we were sharing around, but L didn’t drink his: he accepted a portion, so as not to draw attention to himself, I suppose, and I found it afterwards, untouched.

I love cocktails in jugs and at the moment I’m obsessed with Palomas.

12 responses

  1. Sounds interesting. To throw into the mix, I was having a conversation with a chap in his early 70’s whose wife had died recently. In retirement he had been her carer, he had no children of his own and now he felt redundant and wondered what his purpose was, Empty nest feelings are real, not planning for retirement is the same, finding a new role so important.

    • I actually work with carers, and the loss of role/ identity when they stop being carers is a very big problem for many – I frequently explain to people that they can feel grief without a bereavement.

  2. I enjoyed this one and rated it the same as you, even though I’d struggled a lot with Cusk before (several DNFs). I can see why the psychological depth appealed to you. I’d say this was a lot more readable than, e.g. the Outline trilogy.

  3. Granddaughter’s 18th yesterday and the ‘restaurant’ was handing out cocktails in goldfish bowls. However, she survived and was home at 6am for a well-earned sleep.

    This is the second mention of Cusk, of whom I have not previously heard, in 24 hours. I think if the protagonists are just the one initial then it’s going to be a serious work.

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