Second Place | Rachel Cusk #GBRfiction

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life.

Second Place was my very first Rachel Cusk.

Her work has been on my radar for years, but I had steered clear because I thought her work might be too over-wrought or angsty for my taste. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while, know all too well that I have a fairly highly threshold for over-wrought and angsty! But for a while, I feared that Second Place would exceed said threshold with ease.

I put it aside for a week or so, then tried again.

I was in holiday mode for the second attempt. This time I lapped up all the angst and self-conscious anxiety and over-thinking about art and solitude, life and death. It felt like reading someone’s personal journal where they spilled out all their insecurities and worked through their various emotional states, finally coming across some hard won lessons learnt.

Cusk’s narrator, M, is a middle aged woman, twice married and a chronic sufferer of doubt and personal examination. She takes things to heart, is overly sensitive and over-thinks pretty much everything. She is very conscious of her place as a female in a male-dominated society. She worries about fate and destiny, image and privacy, being seen (and therefore heard and understood by another) and being invisible. I’m not sure where the disgorged evil fitted in though, that permeated every layer of her life. Her life was complicated and messy at times, and made more so by the decisions and choices she made, but evil? Perhaps, Cusk was flagging from the very first sentence, M’s tendency towards being over-dramatic.

I drifted around like a vagrant spirit, cast out of the home of myself to be buffeted by every word and mood and whim of other people!

This book will not be for everyone, and there were times when I thought it would not be for me. But the psychological tension that Cusk created between M, her husband, her daughter and partner and the egotistical artist, L, was quite enthralling by the end.

L was invited by M to stay on her property, in the second place, separated ‘by a glade of trees‘ from the main house, to paint. I wondered, was this going to be a case of paint by alphabet, rather than numbers? But curiously, everyone else was given a name – Tony, Justine, Kurt and Brett, the young woman who turned up with L, unannounced. I’m sure there was a reason for this, but I do not know what that reason was.

Much of the melodrama existed inside M’s head. Although L did seem to be a manipulative, mean sort of fellow as described by M. There was obviously some past relationship trauma that M was working through and L appeared to have the power to push those buttons.

Halfway through the book, I stopped to have a rant in my own book journal about femininity, thanks to M’s comment about her daughter, Justine.

I suspected that she was engaged in the pointless squandering of her femininity.

I found it to be a very provocative statement.

At first glance, I understood exactly what she meant. When young, often to avoid the male gaze, women (me) deliberately dressed, acted & styled themselves to be unattractive or masculine or earthy. Obviously it ended up drawing it’s own unwanted attentions, as so many men (still) seem to think it is their god-given right to comment on a woman’s appearance, whether they know her or not.

But then what is femininity? Who defines it?

Isn’t much of our idea about femininity actually something that comes from what men (and the media) think is desirable and alluring in women? And if femininity does exist as something for women to own, then it must mean something different for every woman, for it to be a truly meaningful thing. So does squandering one’s femininity mean being unaware of it? Or is it when you deliberately chose not to embrace the culturally accepted definition of femininity? Or was this a case of an older woman trying to impose her ideas of femininity on a younger one? Or simply a mother seeing her daughter go through the same awkward stages as herself?

As it turned out, this was not the only comment I found provocative. This post could be pages long with my personal reflections and responses on parent/child relationships, how we give up our power to other people, marriage and love, the nature of fear, what is beauty, art and suffering, finding personal meaning in other people’s art, and our attachment to telling, and retelling, the stories of our life.

I believe that as a rule children don’t care for their parents’ truths and have long since made up their own minds, or have formulated false beliefs from which from which they can never be persuaded, since their whole conception of reality is founded on them.

It made me Duck, Duck, Go Cusk.

I discovered she is almost exactly one year old than me. She too, is twice married (like her narrator, M) and a mother of daughters. She is now married to an artist. She was born in Canada but has lived most of her life in the UK. It was apparent that a lot of Cusk’s personal stuff influenced or embedded itself into this story in one way or another. She explores the universal in the personal. Which is how she seems to write. Phrases like ‘representing the female experience‘, ‘transcendental reflections‘ and ‘technical originality‘ are used to her describe her work.

But who is Jeffers?


  • At the end of the book, Cusk writes, ‘Second place owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico.’
  • Lorenzo in Taos (1932) by Mabel Dodge Luhan – book blurb Sunstone Press reprint 2007:

In September, 1922, the internationally known British writer D. H. Lawrence arrived with his wife, Frieda, at the railroad station in Lamy, New Mexico. They had traveled from Australia to San Francisco, then onward to Taos at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, the patroness of arts and culture in Taos. It was the beginning of an intense relationship. Mabel, daughter of a well-to-do New York family, had a long history of cultivating arts and letters.

Lawrence encouraged Mabel to write about her own life. Her book, “Lorenzo in Taos,” is written loosely in the form of letters to and from D. H. Lawrence, Frieda Lawrence, and Robinson Jeffers, the celebrated poet who had been a guest of Mabel’s in Taos. The book is an entertaining account of her relationship with DHL. An important work, its reprinting is welcomed by scholars and those of us who have come to respect her contributions to the literary world. Initially, Luhan earned fame for her friendships with artists, writers, etc. at her salon in Greenwich Village. In 1917, weary of society, she moved to remote Taos, New Mexico, then publicized the tiny town’s beauty to the world, drawing a steady stream of guests, including artist Georgia O’Keeffe, poet Robinson Jeffers, and authors D. H. Lawrence and Willa Cather. She died in Taos in 1962.

  • Tony was the husband of Mabel. Lawrence’s typist was Dorothy Brett, referred to as The Brett. I suspect if I dug deeper, I would find a Justine and Kurt as well.

Favourite Quote:

I often think there’s just as much to be said about what you thought would happen as about what actually did.

Favourite character:

  • The husband, Tony:

Tony is not someone who interferes lightly in the course of things, knowing as he does that to take on the work of fate is to incur full responsibility for its consequences.

Favourite or Forget:

  • Memorable
Book: Second Place 
Author: Rachel Cusk
ISBN: 9780571366699
Publisher: Faber
Pub Date: 6th May 2021
Format: Trade Paperback

7 thoughts on “Second Place | Rachel Cusk #GBRfiction

  1. I really can’t decide if I want to read Cusk or not. I might be a not scared of her. I kind of feel like I am going to be completely blown away by her writing, or want to throw the book across the room!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know exactly what you mean Cathy. It’s why this was my first Cusk. I wasn’t completely blown away by the writing, but it was a powerful, get-under-your-skin kind of book. I will certainly try some more Cusk (probably the trilogy), but I’m not sure her non-fiction is for me.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t know Rachel Cusk, but I don’t mind angst. In fact I think the best literature is just an ongoing self-examination (by best I mean the literature that I like). As the father of (very different) daughters, now in their 40s, but with the oldest granddaughter already 17, I worry all the time about the sexualisation of young girls. Re your pause to reflect, there’s an interesting article in the NYT about pop singer Billie Ellish who kept her body out of the discussion so to speak for many years, though that of course itself was endlessly discussed, and has now done a lingerie shoot for Vogue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have so much to say, I don’t even know where to start! Not that I could say anything new or offer a perspective that hasn’t already been discussed. But as a former preschool teacher for 18 yrs, I can tell you the sexualisation of young girls has started by then. I enjoy Celeste Barber’s instagram account for the way she parodies such images. I’ll be curious to see if she tackles the corset image.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 2021 in Review

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