Works of art become powerful when they can convey—or at least hint at—some kind of truth. This notion alone presumes that the artist knows something the average person does not. Creators help connect people with something that has always been known, deep down, but could never accurately be expressed.
But the balance between living in the moment and creating art out of living is not an easy one to master. Second Place, the latest novel from Rachel Cusk, grapples with a woman’s desire to do both. Lauded author of the Outline trilogy, Cusk returns with a stunning work about womanhood, self-acceptance, and the search for personal freedom.
The narrator, M, begins by disclosing that she encountered the devil many years ago on a train after stumbling upon an art gallery in Paris, where she was enraptured by the paintings of an artist she calls L. She recognized herself in those paintings, and her encounter with the devil subsequently caused her to pursue freedom instead of the life she was living—married with a child.
The book is set a decade and a half later at a marsh where M lives with her second husband, Tony, a quiet yet commanding man who helps her connect to the landscape and live a peaceful life. She starts to wonder if L, the artist, would like to paint the marsh landscape, as she still believes they share a deep kinship, even though they never met. She writes to him with the help of a connection and invites him to come stay at their “second place,” a guest house that she and Tony constructed for such a purpose.
L comes to the marsh with a fiery young woman named Brett, who has her own noteworthy ambitions, claiming to have had success in photography, medicine, sailing, and ballet. Hints are then dropped that some worldwide crisis is occurring, perhaps a pandemic, that brings in two additional guests—M’s daughter Justine and her boyfriend, Kurt. Among this unlikely group, friendships are formed, feelings are hurt, and passions are pursued; M also learns more of what it means to be a mother, an artist, and a human being.
M describes L as an “attractive man” who “emanated a kind of physical neutrality that I took personally and interpreted as a sign that he did not consider me to be truly a woman.”
M is over-analytical and seems to have little self-confidence, looking outward to find reassurance that she rarely receives. She notices the qualities in others that she wishes she herself had, creating an endearing character arc that Cusk spans with ease.
Through it all, M seems unsure whether she is in love with L or just wants him to see something true in her, for someone to see it. She craves his attention, and envies his maleness and ability to create.
“Not to have been born in a woman’s body was a piece of luck in the first place,” M says. She recurrently describes failing to use her femininity properly and believes herself ugly. In her initial encounter with L’s work, she remembers the “aura of male freedom” she saw in his paintings. When L starts to treat her coldly, it only confirms her insecurities.
Before she ever saw L’s paintings and left her old life, she was seeking that aura of male freedom. She felt that she could only find it through art and desperately wanted “to express or reflect some aspect of existence.” Now, again, she seeks the abundance that emanates from L to eschew her more practical life. All these years later, she still wants L to inspire her to create, to live freely, to be her true self.
She admits that referring to her guest house as the second place “pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life—that it had been a near miss.” A second, more artistic place that had always remained unattainable.
As the situation on the marsh changes with comings and goings, quarrels and illnesses, M shows a kind of acceptance, of herself and of reality. In a particularly stirring passage, she considers for the first time:
“The possibility that art—not just L’s art but the whole notion of art—might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could never be equaled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging.”
Instead of seeking the unreal, perhaps exploring reality itself allows us to better appreciate more modest satisfaction, and even love. And inhabiting the space between being a creator and an observer doesn’t make us insignificant.
Second Place is introspective and amusing, an impeccable work of art.
by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 4, 2021
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.