From the author of the Outline trilogy comes a story about a woman who invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. Powerfully drawn to his paintings, she believes his vision might penetrate the mystery at the center of her life. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence itself becomes an enigma—and disrupts the calm of her secluded household.
Though Lawrence is the inspiration, it isn’t his energy that dominates Second Place. Instead I sensed the residue of Anita Brookner’s weary protagonists: bright, cultured women who know what they’re missing out on and resent those who keep it from them ... As Cusk hits all the high notes of indignant rage, this book snaps and steams ... the mere existence of Second Place makes me wonder if she found the Outline trilogy as cleansing as so many of us did ... Cusk’s open experimentation is refreshing, as is her belief that a writer must keep moving forward, forging a rough chain.
You know when you’re reading a page of Rachel Cusk’s fiction. Her narrators tug insistently if coolly at the central knots of being. They analyze every emotion as if it were freshly invented. Nothing is extraneous ... The narrator is familiar: a sharply observant writer in middle age ... More notably, this book has a swirling hothouse quality that’s new ... It’s as if Cusk has been reading Joyce Carol Oates’s best novels. She digs into the gothic core of family and romantic entanglements. I filled the margins with check marks of admiration, but also with exclamation points. This novel pushes its needles into the red ... One doesn’t come to a Cusk novel for plot but for her extra-fine psychological apparatus. Yet there is a fair amount of plot in Second Place ... If I could have rubbed a lamp and lightened this book’s lurid intensities, I might have. It is not a novel that gladdens the soul. But gladdening the soul has never been Cusk’s project.
On the surface, then, this is a novel of glaring privilege, steeped in a mode of middle-class existence so rarified that the 'lower things' must never be allowed to intrude. This is, however, a Cusk novel, and in Cusk novels the surface, as experienced by reader and characters alike, invariably proves too fragile to be trusted. Second Place, it turns out, is a novel less about property, and more about the boundaries and misplaced emotional investment for which property is a proxy ... The novel’s emotional nuance, its stylistic poise, has been as perfectly and painstakingly constructed as the life it describes, only to be blown apart by a flat and shattering statement, weighted around a central, immovable truth ... Towards the end of the novel, the narrator says of L, whom she both admires and loathes, and by whom she knows herself to be loathed in turn: 'He drew me with the cruelty of his rightness closer to the truth.' We might say the same of Cusk, our arch chronicler of the nullifying choice between suffocation and explosion. Her genius is that in deliberately blurring a boundary of her own – that between a writer and her subject, between the expectation of autobiography so often attached to writing by women, and the carapace of pure invention so often unthinkably afforded to men – she tricks us into believing that her preoccupations and failings, her privileges and apparent assumptions, are not our own. By the time we realise what has happened, it is too late: our own surface has been disturbed, our own complacent compartment dismantled. It is a shock, but as the narrator of Second Place reminds us, 'shock is sometimes necessary, for without it we would drift into entropy'. Cusk is necessary too – deeply so, and Second Place, exquisite in the cruelty of its rightness, reminds us why.