Second Place by Rachel Cusk review – exquisitely cruel home truths

The deeply gendered experience of freedom is cunningly exposed in a shocking interrogation of art, privilege and property

If you wanted to locate a defining preoccupation in the consistently remarkable, formally daring fiction of Rachel Cusk, you might well alight on the issue of property. Cusk is obsessed with houses. Her revelatory Outline trilogy, completed in 2018 with the publication of Kudos, faltered on the awkward class politics of its central volume, in which the narrator’s efforts to renovate an ex-council flat are undermined by the inconvenient working classes living below.

Now, in her first novel since the trilogy’s reimagining of novelistic form, Cusk gives us not just a dream home but a dream home with a second home attached – the “Second Place” of the novel’s title. And it’s not just any old place either. It is, says the narrator, “a place of great but subtle beauty, where artists often seem to find the will or the energy or just the opportunity to work”. Indeed, she says, “people often say this is one of the last places”.

The Second Place began as a “parcel of wasteland” adjoining the main property. The narrator and her husband bought it “to prevent it from being misused”, or to put it another way, to prevent any disturbance to the boundaries of their idyll. With the help of a group of men “who all help one another when there’s physical work to be done”, the cottage on the property was renovated. Now the narrator invites artists to use it as a kind of retreat, or, as she puts it, “a home for the things that weren’t already here – the higher things”.

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.

Where the Outline trilogy centred the act of listening – the narrator often receding while the people she met recounted the details of their lives – Second Place re-establishes a more singular viewpoint, taking the form of either a letter or a slightly breathless address to someone called Jeffers. The narrator is never named, and Jeffers is neither seen nor contextualised. It’s a telling balance of opposites in a novel devoted to the difficulties of feeling complete. Alone in Paris, the narrator happens across an exhibition of paintings by an artist she refers to as L. The experience is revelatory, transcendent. There is no doubt in her mind that L must be the next artist she invites to inhabit the Second Place. After some delays and distractions, L accepts.

Accessed by invitation only, the Second Place allows for a carefully managed titration of human contact into the narrator’s calm but distanced world. L, though, upends this mechanism of order by bringing someone with him – a young and beautiful companion called Brett. Even before meeting her, the narrator senses in this uninvited addition a profound and destabilising danger. “It wasn’t at all how I’d planned it!” she tells Jeffers. “I feared, suddenly, that my belief in the life I was living wouldn’t hold, and that all I’d built up would collapse underneath me and I’d be unhappy again.” In its apparent excess, her panic is telling. This is a person for whom control and comfort are effectively the same thing.

Her fear is horribly confirmed. When she meets Brett for the first time, Brett first scrutinises, and then, in an act of brazen disregard for personal boundaries, touches the narrator’s hair, finding it “really quite dry”. Painfully, the narrator is made aware of “the feeling of invisibility I very often had, now that I lived a life in which I was very rarely commented on”. She drives home “like an animal in dumb torment”, barely able to stop herself from screaming and lashing out. With just a touch and a word, the smooth and ordered surface of her life has been disturbed. She has been seen, and the experience of being seen is agony.

By the next morning, though, that agony almost seems welcome. Through Brett’s uncaring, youthful scrutiny, and by the unpredictable, at times confrontational presence of L, a kind of charge has been detonated. “My whole life,” she tells Jeffers, “had merely been a process of controlling myself and holding things in.” Now, “strange, violent impulses were coming over me, one after another. I wanted to lie down and hammer my fists on the grass – I wanted to experience a complete loss of control.”

Untethered from her own self-protective instincts though she has become, the narrator instinctively grasps what she stands to gain. “This loss of control held new possibilities for me, however angry and ugly and out of sorts it had made me feel so far, as though it were itself a kind of freedom.” But a freedom from what? From “my own compartmentalised nature. All these compartments in which I had kept things, from which I would decide what to show to other people who kept themselves in compartments too!”

In this moment, for reader and narrator alike, the true function of property is laid bare. A home is nothing more than a compartment in which we contain ourselves, and by which we keep others out. L, of course, has no time for it. Through his semi-transient life as an artist, he says, he has “watched the people of his acquaintance create homes that were like plaster casts of their own wealth, with humans inside. Those structures sometimes exploded and sometimes merely suffocated their occupants.”

It is through these differing relationships to property that Cusk slowly, agonisingly, reveals the wound implied by the novel’s sly pun of a title: the uneven, contested, deeply gendered experience of freedom. L, the epitome of the arrogant, entitled, unconstrained male artist, experiences property not as a place or possession at all, but “as a set of inalienable rights attached to himself. His property was the radial sphere of his own persona; it was the environs of wherever he happened to be.” For the narrator, it is all so much more fragile, more tenuous, both hard won and easily lost. And the cruellest irony of all is that she knows, in the end, that neither her property nor her fearfully defended way of life will protect her. Encouraging her daughter to move on after a failed relationship, she tells her “she would always be able to find a white man to be obliterated by, if that was what she wanted”. The line is typical of Cusk’s tonal method. 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.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Sam Byers

The GuardianTramp

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