Book review: Rachel Cusk asks what it is to be a woman in Second Place

The Booker Prize-longlisted Second Place is Rachel Cusk's 11th novel.
The Booker Prize-longlisted Second Place is Rachel Cusk's 11th novel.PHOTOS: SIEMON SCAMELL-KATZ, FABER & FABER

Second Place

By Rachel Cusk
Fiction/Faber & Faber/Paperback/207 pages/$27.82/Available here
5 out of 5

Few writers today come closer to capturing the nuances and hypocrisies in the life of the modern Western woman than Canadian author Rachel Cusk.

In her 11th novel, the Booker Prize-longlisted Second Place, she returns to the topics which have been the source of her literary career: What is identity? What is art? What does art tell people about life? What is it to be a woman?

Second Place was inspired by Cusk's affinity for writer D.H. Lawrence - "I would so love to have had him as my friend," she said in an interview with The Guardian in 2014 - and Lorenzo In Taos (1932), Mabel Dodge Luhan's account of Lawrence's 1922 visit to her artist colony in Taos, New Mexico.

Cusk reimagines Lawrence as L, a world-famous painter whom the protagonist M has invited to come and stay at Second Place, a contemporary cottage she and her husband have built overlooking the marshland where they live.

In confessional prose addressed to a mysterious Jeffers, M recounts the months spent in L's presence.

M has high hopes for this visit, having developed a mild obsession with L and his artwork after experiencing an awakening in front of his paintings years before.

She hopes that L "would find a way of capturing the ineffability of the marsh landscape, and thereby unlock and record something of my own soul".

These hopes are annihilated as soon as L arrives, laden with quiet contempt for M and with a young, beautiful socialite on his arm.

He immediately offers to paint portraits of everyone on the property except for M because he says, "I can't really see you", articulating her worst fear and cutting her to her core.

M is a 50-year-old mother struggling with her identity, completely detached from her beauty, femininity and her truth as a woman.

"Everything would have been better - would have been right, would have been how it ought to be - had I been a boy," she says.

She is jealous of L and the "elemental freedom" being male affords him, particularly as an artist. Being a woman and a mother, she will always come in "second place".

She hopes that L, unburdened by his gender, will be able to express what she cannot. Instead, their relationship becomes combative as he misses no opportunity to devilishly pick apart her deepest insecurities and hang them out to dry.

How M defends herself against his attacks is the crux of the novel, and in lesser hands, it might have been trite or grossly philosophical.

At once intuitive and analytical, Cusk masterfully anchors her uncompromising interrogation of self, art, freedom and gender in her lively signature prose and the honesty of her characters.

Like M, she asks readers to challenge their ideas and limits. "Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we have ourselves invented?"

If you like this, read: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster, 2014, $27.08, available here). Artist Harriet Burden, dismissed as merely the wife of a famous New York gallerist, decides to reveal the art world's sexism by exhibiting her work using three young male artists as proxies. But the revelation of the artist's true identity does not go as planned.

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