2021 Booker Prize Longlist: Second Place by Rachel Cusk

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2021 Booker Prize Longlist: Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Edited: Aug 6, 2021, 11:58am

This thread is for discussion of Second Place by Rachel Cusk. No unhidden spoilers, please.

Aug 24, 2021, 5:06pm

I don't think that there are any spoilers below... at least not ones that are not on the first few pages.

It was the name Jeffers that got me first. I knew I had seen it somewhere lately - the spelling was weird enough to make me wonder how can I see it twice in the same year. But I could not place it. I needed another name, Brett, to start wondering if this novel can somehow be connected to the artist colony in Taos. Had I looked at the author note at the end of the novel before I read the whole book, I would have seen Cusk's tribute.

But let's get to the novel: M had settled finally on the border of a marsh with a new husband. But before that she met a painter, L, - met his paintings anyway at a time in her life when her life was a bit messed up. When she married Tony, she found the stability she needed - and they built a second house/cabin on their land - called the Second Place. It was supposed to go her daughter but when she moved away it became a refuge for anyone who needs a quiet time to be an artist (of one type or another). That's where our novel opens - with M sending a letter to L to invite him to come to the Second Place - and the story finally takes off when L actually arrives, with Brett in tow, and throws M's ordered life into a disarray.

There is a plot somewhere in there, things do happen but the novel is more concerned with M's thoughts and feelings than with the real life. The whole novel is a set of letters/talks with Jeffers, written/happening after the whole story finished - so there is somewhat of an unreliable narration happening as well - M knows where the story is going so she shapes her story around that.

The novel is an exploration of motherhood and womanhood - M's guilt (sometimes just in being a woman) and thoughts paint a picture which may sound too familiar sometimes. It is curious that the novel does not really have a set timeline - there is a disaster which happened (the Depression?) but it can be set in almost any time - even when Kurt decides to write, he picks up paper and pencil and explains it in the story - we never see a computer or a phone but that does not mean they could not have been there. And yet, with the Taos connection in my mind, that felt like the 20s/30s of the 20th century - even if the text does not get there.

The invitation was meant to heal M but L is not what she really expected - so their relationship is anything but amicable for most of the book. That throws M into memories and flashbacks - when she is not unhappy.

In 1932, Mabel Dodge Luhan published a memoir called "Lorenzo in Taos". It was based on D. H. Lawrence stay in the artist colony in Taos that she was running with her husband. The memoir is written by using the letters between Mabel, Lawrence and Robinson Jeffers (among others). and deals with the relationship between the author, his wife, Mabel and the artist Dorothy Brett. I read a book about the Southwest earlier this year and that's what triggered my memory - I had never read the memoir (but now I want to) but the Taos colony was important in the development of arts in New Mexico and the Southwest. Once that connection finally clicked, a lot of what I had issues with in the novel actually smoothed out - while the novel is not an exact replica of the real-life story, it has a lot of ties into it - some of them quite obvious, some of them a bit more hidden (for example the real life Tony won Mabel by sitting in his teepee every night and drumming, trying to get her to come to her; the novel's Tony wrote letters every day which were "as if he were beating a drum, steadily and without cease").

I am pretty sure that I missed a lot of these connections - especially early in the novel when I had not made the connection and even more because I do not know Mabel's story that well. I plan to read her memoir - I am really curious to see how close the novel is to the real life story.

The novel is a tribute to the spirit of real-life Mabel - a woman that was bigger than life in a time when women were anything but. But I do wonder if that connection did not actually worked the opposite to what the author intended - without the Taos connection, the novel is flat and listless (and M is annoying) - it reads more like an essay on womanhood with somewhat wooden characters; with it, it kinda feels like a retelling which tries too hard to connect the dots without actually repeating the real life story. There are differences and the ending is different and yet... something just does not click cleanly together for me.

I do not read a lot of contemporary novels and I probably would not have picked this one up if it was not for it landing on the Booker long list. Somewhere in the middle of the book I realized that I treat it more as a puzzle than as a novel - trying to find the Taos connections and to figure out the timeline. Which is never a good sign - I expect novels to keep me in the flow of their narrative. But it also seems to be in a style which is modern these days (even if it rarely works for me) so between the language (flowery and beautiful albeit overwritten in places) and the Taos connection, I can see why the literary circles may like it.

I do wonder though if this would not have been a much better book if it was half its length, paired down to a novella. I guess we will never know.

One down, 12 to go. I have a suspicion that this one will make the shortlist - not because it is a great novel but because of what it is. We will see.