Ultimately, there’s something excessive and undigested in the novel’s bid to recast Luhan’s thwarted longing for Lawrence’s recognition as a modern-day battle of wills between a sympathetically needy writer and standoffish painter. It’s a pity, because as a tale of midlife malaise, Second Place glints with many of Cusk’s typically frosty pleasures; she’s especially sharp, for instance, on the fraught enterprise of parenting grownup children who return to the nest. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that, freed from its source, the story would have got along just fine by itself.
So far, so familiar. There are the usual Cuskian longueurs, as well as moments of brave, sharp insight. Then you start to lose your way. L and M keep having intense conversational encounters: they hate one another, yet they’re drawn inexorably together. Cusk’s prose, always oddly fustian, starts to sound like a cut-price Victorian novelist. There’s a lot of heavy-handed Garden of Eden symbolism. It feels like a strange rehashing of a DH Lawrence novel, with talk of wills and true origins and destroying one another.
Cusk coyly presents Second Place as a fable, saving her from committing to whether it is a novel or a memoir, but something less easily defined, floating in between. This partly explains its weighty biblical symbolism – L evidently resembles the devil; L paints a poisonous mural of Adam and Eve; there’s an extraordinary scene in which M, having finally persuaded a reluctant L to paint her, rushes to his room in her wedding dress. The problem is that these aspects feel overwrought. They don’t, ironically, feel real. Cusk is dependent on Luhan’s memoir for plot, but she can’t make it work.
On the surface, then, this is a novel of glaring privilege, steeped in a mode of middle-class existence so rarified that the “lower things” must never be allowed to intrude. This is, however, a Cusk novel, and in Cusk novels the surface, as experienced by reader and characters alike, invariably proves too fragile to be trusted. Second Place, it turns out, is a novel less about property, and more about the boundaries and misplaced emotional investment for which property is a proxy... Her genius is that in deliberately blurring a boundary of her own – that between a writer and her subject, between the expectation of autobiography so often attached to writing by women, and the carapace of pure invention so often unthinkably afforded to men – she tricks us into believing that her preoccupations and failings, her privileges and apparent assumptions, are not our own. By the time we realise what has happened, it is too late: our own surface has been disturbed, our own complacent compartment dismantled.
She is really interested in ideas — how to live, what freedom means, the ways women subsume themselves into the lives of others — and, as M puts it: “I need to get at the truth of a thing and dig and dig until it is dragged painfully to light.” In this sense Second Place compares favourably with Edward St Aubyn’s recent novel Double Blind: both are full of philosophical questions, but only Cusk straps the ideas down tightly to her characters.
Second Place shows the freedoms of art to be ambiguous and often entirely arbitrary. They are the results not of visionary inspiration but of practice, patience and the dullness of repetition. “The rigorously trained fingers of the concert pianist”, the narrator says in a moment of perceptiveness, “are freer than the enslaved heart of the music-lover can ever be.” It’s a sentiment that helps understand the tragedy of this book, as well as the monumental achievement of Cusk’s recent novels, which possess a hard-won freedom and a glittering brilliance which could only be achieved after long and rigorous training.