Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood


‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk (2021) – 180 pages


Here is the first sentence of the narrative by the woman M in ‘Second Place’ that really stood out for me:

I had spent the evening in the company of a famous writer, who was actually nothing more significant than a very lucky man.”

This is one plain-spoken sentence that particularly resonated with me. I’m wishing that more sentences in this novel were as easy to follow. Often it was difficult for me to figure out the sophisticated and abstract reasoning of our M.

M, now in her late forties, lives in the coastal southern part of France. M is married to Tony, a supremely practical, successful, and even-tempered man. M herself has artistic longings and has been enthralled with the work of the artist L for a long time. She invites him to stay with them in the building which she calls their second place. She describes L as “wiry and small, dapper and goatish”, nearly the opposite of her husband. However, she is struck by his paintings. Unbeknownst to M and Tony, L brings along his quite young girlfriend Brett.

Throughout the novel, It is a struggle to follow our narrator M’s sophisticated speculations and ruminations, but I suppose I prefer this mental struggle to the overly simplistic reasoning often found in much other fiction.

Rachel Cusk is a special case. Her style of writing is so finely tuned, she can get away with a level of lofty abstraction that most writers wouldn’t dare.

The pattern of change and repetition is so deeply bound to the particular harmony of life, and the exercise of freedom is subject to it, as to a discipline. One has to serve out one’s changes moderately, like strong wine.”

Just when you think M is going to go wandering off into the cosmos with her thoughts, she brings them back to Earth with strong wine.

However there are many other sentences from M that if you can comprehend and appreciate their full meaning, you are a more perceptive reader than I am.

An image is also eternal, but it has no dealings with time – it disowns it, as it has to do, for how could one ever in the practical world scrutinize or comprehend the balance sheet of time that brought about the image’s unending moment? Yet the spirituality of the image beckons us, as our own sight does, with the promise to free us from ourselves.”

All this dense theorizing about art camouflages the rather simple theme of the novel which I assume to be the never-ending conflict between the practical and the artistic or, in terms of this novel, the practical Tony and the artistic L.

In a final note to the novel, Rachel Cusk says she owes a debt to ‘Lorenzo in Taos’, a memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan. and that L is the D. H. Lawrence figure in the story. ‘Second Place’ did make me curious about that memoir.


Grade:    B





7 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony! Very interesting review of a novel that’s certainly getting some attention these days. I have a copy, sitting unread on the shelf; I’ve been attempting, so far unsuccessfully, to get myself motivated to start it. I’ve mostly avoided Rachel Cusk, except for some of her early novels, but she’s just considered so significant I’m curious to see what I think. I’ll be very surprised if this novel doesn’t make it to the Booker short list (I’m rooting for Galgut’s The Promise but I also want to read Sahota’s China Room, as I loved his Year of the Runaways).

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Janakay,
      ‘China Room’ by Sunjeev Sahota, thanks for the tip. For the 2021 Booker prize, ‘The Promise’ is so far my favorite, but I have high expectations for ‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers. I have been very impressed with all the novels of Powers that I have read so far. ‘Bewilderment’ hasn’t been published yet,but will be soon. Of course ‘Klara and the Sun’ is a strong contender, but I preferred ‘The Promise’. I also hope to read ‘An Island’ by Kate Jennings soon.



      • The Booker judges seem to love Powers — isn’t this his third time on the list? On the negative side, I don’t think an American is going to win (the judges had too much flap about U.S. writers dominating the award in the first few years they were eligible). The only one of his novels that I’ve read is Orfeo, which was tremendous but . . . somehow I never got to another one. Perhaps Powers’ work is just too difficult and demanding for me; it’s cerebral and issues oriented while I tend to go for character and atmosphere.
        I love Ishiguro but I’ve been avoiding Klara. I’ll read it but not soon. Jennings’ Island looks interesting — I may read it.

        Liked by 1 person


        • I didn’t know that last year’s winner, Douglas Stuart of ‘Shuggie Bain’, was from the United States, so you are probably right that they won’t go with a US writer again. That makes Damon Galgut probably the favorite. But watch for ‘Bewilderment’; it’s shorter than Powers’ last so it probably will make a big splash. I know that Powers tends to be issue-oriented which I usually don’t care for, but I’ve really liked his novels anyhow.
          Besides Rachel Cusk, the other women are quite unknown, but there could be a surprise winner like last year.

          Liked by 1 person


  2. Hmmm, yes, Cusk, I have one of hers on the TBR, I think, but I am yet to decide whether I should read get round to reading it because she’s important or whether it’s just hype. I know from the blurb that it doesn’t actually appeal to me.
    (Like a fool, I bought a Sally Rooney too, but I know now that I’m never going to read it).

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      I suppose you could wait for the Booker shortlist, and if Rachel Cusk makes it there, you could read it. However that reasoning may be too crass for you.
      And I am not so down on Sally Rooney as you seem to be, but she didn’t make the Booker longlist anyhow.



      • LOL Tony, it’s been a while since I’ve taken any notice of the Booker. I used to collect them, I’ve got nearly all of them in First Edition hardbacks but I don’t do it anymore. These days, I rely on trusted blogging friends to guide me on international fiction and am rarely disappointed.

        Liked by 1 person


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