M, Cusk’s otherwise unnamed narrator, is addressing Jeffers—therapist, friend, diary, we don’t know—telling them about a period of time she spent with L, a famous older painter. M, who had had a pivotal encounter with L’s works when her first marriage was collapsing—or, indeed, the encounter might be read as in some sense precipitating that collapse—had written to L to see if he’d like to stay and work for a while on the property owned by her second husband, Tony, a practical, taciturn and gentle man. They’ve built a rustic cabin on the land—the titular ‘second place’—and over the years many visitors, artists and otherwise, have stayed there for a time. When L does arrive, to M’s dismay he brings with him a beautiful young woman, Brett. M isn’t entirely sure what she wants from L—love, recognition, acknowledgement, all or none of the above—and nor is she sure what he wants from her, or from her home or family (staying with M and Tony at this point, too, are M’s daughter, Justine, and her boyfriend, Kurt). However, here they all are, now, circling each other, each watching their collective dynamics shift.
That’s both the set-up and, bar a couple of spoilers, the plot: the novel, as we’re coming to expect from Cusk, is circuitous and inwards-looking—a worrying away at a life, a worrying away about life. M, a writer, is trying to figure herself out, to see how she’s been put together, and how she’s put together her daughter and her marriages. More than that, though, M—the book itself—is meditating on patriarchal society: on men and women and power and will, on reality and how we shape it and shape each other, on vision and looking and how gender plays into all of this. L is free in a way that M, a woman and a mother, can never be, and M’s fixation upon him is bound up with this; he’s a cipher, perhaps, for her own self-analysis. The power balance between them shifts, of course, as the plot develops (here’s where that spoiler would go, so I’ll leave it vague) but the questions M raises aren’t really answered, and nor could they be—Cusk isn’t in the business of tidy fixes.
If this all sounds rather vague, it’s because Second Place is, more than anything, a novel of ideas, and ideas don’t make for exciting summaries. They make for captivating reading though, when paired with Cusk’s incisive prose, and in this case, what starts out as the story of a woman who may or may not be contemplating an affair expands into an uncompromising exploration of disappointment and fulfilment, the spaces between people, the inscrutability of those people, and how art and language fit into it all. Complex, right? But this is Cusk on her home turf—if anyone since Henry James has made intricate and erudite prise their own, it’s her, but it’s also accessible (sorry, Henry). And it’s also beautiful: the coastal setting, the marsh and the tide and the light, is ever-present, infusing the human drama with an ethereal quality that will outlast them. Notably, too, this is the first book I’ve read this year that references, albeit quietly and not by name, the Covid-19 pandemic: M refers obliquely to a disturbance that’s disrupted travel and kept people at home. Here Cusk gives us a template with which to locate a post-2020 novel without being overly heavy-handed about it; the solitude of M’s life, the inward-looking quality of her existence, as well as her economic powerlessness as a woman, is given added resonance in this context.
Any Cop?: If you liked the Outline trilogy you’ll feel at home here. Cusk’s lately been recognised as a significant force in the landscape of contemporary English-language fiction and this book will bolster that reputation. If you’re after a conventional page-turner, though, maybe look to her early works.