If Ali Smith is the fiery, inventive moralist among our leading British writers and Hilary Mantel is the chronicler of sumptuous history and the contradictions of power, then Rachel Cusk is the coolly elegant cartographer of inner lives, given to restraint as Smith and Mantel are inclined to excess. Cusk’s recent Outline trilogy is a Didion-like achievement, so poised and philosophical that readers may miss the anguish and self-laceration beneath her limpid prose. In the debate over Creative Writing 101′s maxim, “show, don’t tell,” Cusk is among the most accomplished practitioners of “tell.”
Although less even in execution than the trilogy, her new novel, “Second Place,” draws on her evergreen preoccupations — the shadow of divorce, the binary of women and men, the chains of art and attraction — in a pandemic-tinged fable addressed to an off-stage character. “Second Place” opens with a flashback: the narrator, M, is a writer caged in an unhappy marriage, with a toddler daughter, when she stumbles into a gallery show in Paris. The painter, L, kindles in her a drive toward freedom. Fifteen years later, M has left her abusive husband and found a tentative happiness with the strong, silent Tony, among coastal marshes. She invites the financially strapped L to come from New York; he can stay and paint in their “second place,” a cottage across a glade from their main house. L arrives with a glamorous young woman, Brett, in tow. As the world locks down M’s daughter, Justine, now in her early twenties, seeks refuge with her foppish boyfriend, Kurt. It’s no surprise, then, that cabin fever sets in, despite the vast fields and wetlands. Cusk’s characters may escape the plague, but they can’t escape each other.
M adores Tony and depends on his steady presence, but she’s half in love with L and wants him to paint her and the landscape that nurtures her fragile serenity. Sensing M’s obsessiveness, L keeps his distance, asking the others to sit for him, frustrating his hostess. “To be led and then discarded by one’s urges: why should an artist not feel it more than anyone?” she asks.
Cusk’s language pulses beautifully — she’s one of Britain’s greatest stylists — even as her story spins into abstract digression. (Throughout “Second Place” she sprinkles exclamation points, underscoring her narrator’s emotional swings and possible unreliability.) As in her previous work Cusk flickers around erotic sparks like a moth around a candle. M wants to be L’s muse. She’s willing to upend her settled life, but he confounds her fixed notions of male desire. “Perhaps it’s the case that L had — and who knows, maybe all men have — only one way of touching a woman, in which their automatic selves are set into involuntary motion,” she observes. “I didn’t want that automatic, shop-soiled touching . . . L sat down beside me, and in the silence the soothing sights and sounds of the marsh, the waving grasses flecked with butterflies, the distant soughing of the sea, the trailing ribbons of birdsong and the calls of the geese and gulls, could come into focus.” M considers L’s landscapes to be his best work; Cusk’s lush descriptions of the surrounding marshes are hers.
The final chapters of “Second Place” are less vivid and more cerebral as M skewers L’s contempt and her own erratic behavior. The claustrophobia here mirrors the claustrophobia of quarantine, how the past year has forced all manner of reckonings, but there’s a whiff of first-world problems that feels tedious. Cusk’s tone is deliberately arch, but undermines her more arresting scenes and sentences. As M opines, “The revelation that my whole life, which appeared to be have been built on love and freedom of choice, was in fact a façade that concealed the most craven selfishness was deeply shocking to me.” And so on.
Quibbles aside, Cusk is fearless in her interior journeys, whether they lead to heaven or hell, or, more likely, to a banal purgatory of the self. (The devil makes a cameo appearance here, suggesting L’s fate.) The novel’s most moving sections capture the delicate dance between mother and daughter, how Justine reflects back to M her own ambivalences. And Cusk plays up the double entendre of her title: the second place refers not only to the guest house on the estate but also to the role male artists assign to women. “Second Place” may not rise to the triumphs of her previous books, but it showcases her signature economy of style, her fascination with the schism between body and mind. For Cusk, the heart at war with itself may be the final frontier, and she’s determined to boldly go where no writer has gone before. Her explorations of love and lust are singular.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 192 pages, $25