Review: There's a stubborn, implacable quality to Rachel Cusk's Second Place

Rachel Cusk, who has a reputation for
Rachel Cusk, who has a reputation for "perfectly chiselled prose". Picture: Getty Images
  • Second Place, by Rachel Cusk. Faber, $27.99.

An unnamed narrator invites an artist, L, to come and stay with her and her partner in a remote marshland location.

The invitation comes with no strings attached. L may come and go as he likes from a cottage on the property, stay as long as he likes, paint or not.

(The invitation had its origins years earlier - one morning in Paris, the narrator had stumbled across an exhibition by L. Something of his coldly honest works, and his numinous landscapes stayed with her until she eventually invited him to come and see her own numinous landscape of the marsh.)

When L arrives with a stunning young female companion in tow, the scene is set for an extraordinary and unusual drama about will, power and freedom.

Cusk has a reputation for perfectly chiselled prose, and there is an enviable, coiled precision to this work too.

And yet, in it the narrator recounts the whole story of herself and L to someone called Jeffers, peppering the tale with exclamation marks as if she is dashing off an email to a confidant.

This nudge towards gushiness is almost like a foil to the utterly serious topics examined in Second Place.

Who is Jeffers? There are a few hints that he's a writer, and we're also told he is concerned with reminding people about good and evil. What little we know of him stands in stark contrast to L.

At times, L appears like a wicked, capering devil who captures and then destroys people in his creations.

Second Place poses interesting moral questions of art and artists: is there a higher or stronger truth which artists translate, for good or for ill?

Is influence or custodianship, artistic or parental, a force which can swing between good and evil?

Do we seek refuge in art and created objects as the only sure relief from the harsh or loathsome parts of ourselves?

Tony, the narrator's partner is like a sentinel in the work - tall, dark, unflappable and practical, he is grounded in the wild landscape in a way that reminded me instantly of Bronte's Heathcliff.

He agrees to sit for L and the resulting portrait rocks the narrator. L paints him in miniature, making him look like a plaything, and momentarily breaking the spell of love or custodianship Tony had cast over her for years.

There's a stubborn, implacable quality to this book.

Cusk's impeccable prose and unflinching examination of will, creativity, desire and control give the reader so much to unpack in a first or subsequent readings.

  • Christine Kearney is writer and reviewer.
This story Lots to unpack in Cusk's questions of art and artists first appeared on The Canberra Times.