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book review

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  • Title: Second Place
  • Author: Rachel Cusk
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
  • Pages: 185

Most artists are torn between a desire for absolute freedom – from societal expectations, cultural norms, aesthetic constraints, domestic responsibilities – and a wish to be taken care of, preferably by someone rich. Even the most radical painters, writers and musicians look back at the era of artistic patronage with a tiny bit of envy.

D.H. Lawrence was no different. In 1922, the famously mercurial author – the same one who wrote, in an essay on Herman Melville, “There is no paradise. Fight and laugh and feel bitter and feel bliss: and fight again. Fight, fight. That is life” – accepted an invitation from a rich American heiress named Mabel Dodge Luhan to stay with her and her Indigenous second husband Tony in Taos, N.M. Lawrence and his German-born wife, Frieda, later accepted a 160-acre ranch from Luhan, which they reportedly “paid” for with the original manuscript for Sons and Lovers.

After Lawrence’s death in 1930, Luhan published an engagingly loopy memoir of her time with the great writer, titled Lorenzo in Taos – the entire book framed as a letter to the American poet Robinson Jeffers, another of Luhan’s many artistic guests.

For her new novel, Second Place, the Canadian-born (but very British) Rachel Cusk – who has written that “reading [Lawrence] remains a subversive, transformative, life-altering act” – has created a kind of literary cover version of Lorenzo in Taos. Cusk writes in a postscript to the novel that it “owes a debt” to the earlier book, though that debt goes beyond mere inspiration. The most basic details from Luhan’s memoir are here, albeit in slightly altered form: The narrator, a hyperliterate and neurotic middle-aged woman, living in a remote area with her second husband Tony, invites a famously mercurial artist named L to stay with them, in the hopes that he will be inspired to capture the surrounding landscape in his artistic work – roughly the same agenda that Luhan had with Lawrence. Cusk’s L is a painter, and she substitutes marshlands for the New Mexico desert, but her narrator also recounts her story to a “Jeffers.”

Author Rachel Cusk.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The most significant changes Cusk makes is in narrowing and focusing the story – the novel takes places over a few months, rather than years, and does not stray far from its marshy central setting. Cusk also makes the narrator the mother of a young woman, Justine, who is staying at the marshland home with her boyfriend. In some of her best fiction and non-fiction, Cusk has explored the darker dynamics of parenting, obsessed with trying to work out how either party – parent or child – can exist authentically within a relationship so rife with posturing and concealment and so prone to disappointment. She does so again here: Early on, the narrator says about parenting that “nowhere are our mistakes and limitations more plainly written than there!”

Though there is very little dialogue, the brief and swirlingly intense Second Place often feels, somewhat paradoxically, like a play in novel form. Very little “action” occurs: The narrator, in the midst of a marital and existential crisis, comes across a gallery showing of L’s work in Paris and finds herself drawn to “the aura of absolute freedom his paintings emanate, a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.” She invites L to the marshlands; he and his young girlfriend occupy the guest house – the “second place” of the title. With his obstinance, opinionated nature and total disregard for social convention, L throws life near the marshes into disarray, but in the end, he is the one who is ultimately destroyed by his stay there – physically, at least; artistically, it briefly revives him, though in unexpected ways.

After completing her virtuosic trilogy of “Faye” novels – Outline, Transit and Kudos – Cusk hinted that she was done with the whole novelistic business of creating characters and scenarios. Whatever she did next was bound to be somewhat unexpected, so a fictional reworking of an obscure memoir about one of her literary idols is perhaps entirely appropriate. Her new novel’s narrow band of characters and slightly deracinated feel (the narrative is very coy about what era, and even what country, this is all happening in) means some loss of vividness, but Cusk is as brilliant as ever at revealing the tumult that occurs when people with varying strengths of personal will come into close contact with each other. Second Place is the kind of book that requires re-reading, but also rewards it.

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