Second Place 
Rachel Cusk 
Faber, £15.99
Review by Neil Mackay

If nuance has a last redoubt in this age of blunt conformity and crude identity politics it’s within the pages of literary fiction. There, a writer can still explore pretty much anything they want without bowing to the expectations of an online mob. 
Literature has become, with almost perfect irony, the last safe space in the digital age – where the most discomfiting issues can be poked on the anatomy table without the stultifying dread that exploration of an ugly, difficult idea somehow equates to support for that ugly, difficult idea.
In her latest novel, Second Place, Rachel Cusk takes to the issue of modern sexual politics like a bloodhound after an escaped convict, fearlessly dissecting the mind of a modern woman who sees herself as feminist but is, in truth, as much in thrall to male ego and power as the heroine of any 19th-century novel. In this book, Cusk goes places no commentator could tread in a work of contemporary non-fiction for fear of being denounced as anti-feminist.
Second Place tells the story of a privileged woman, known as M, who invites a shallow narcissistic artist, known as L, to stay at her country home. M has built a holiday cottage – a "second place" – nearby, and fantasises about running her own chic salon. 
Cusk is a skilled social satirist. Her novel eviscerates that strangest of all modern social classes, "the bohemian bourgeoisie" – that branch of the affluent middle class, mostly living in relative luxury through inherited wealth, which rejects the conformity of the nine-to-five world, in favour of a throuple or a spliff after a Nigella dinner cooked on the Aga.
M imagines that she’s different, new and liberated. In fact, with the cruellest of ironies, M is submissive towards men she sees as strong and potent. She sneers at "soft" men. She’s whiny, a pain. That doesn’t make the book bad – it makes it great. M is a real character, in all her messy contradictory glory, not some meme of fake female perfection. 
Cusk does for the women of today’s bohemian bourgeoisie what Gustave Flaubert did to the women of the 19th-century bourgeoisie – mocks them. There are many comparisons to be found between Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Cusk’s M: both dreamy romantics who build castles in the air, only for reality to come crashing down. The key difference, of course, is that Emma, a male creation, lived in a society where women were ruined for breaking rules. M breaks rules but others suffer – chiefly her partner Tony, the book’s only "good" character, whose stolid masculinity, though, is also there for mockery.
The problem for Cusk is that her reputation precedes her. Some of her non-fiction has been thoroughly divisive. Cusk’s divorce memoir Aftermath was the subject of a brutal critical hate-fest. In some quarters, she was painted as narcissistic, petty, cruel, thoughtless, privileged and self-indulgent. Pretty much the characteristics which comprise M.
The idea that fiction reflects its author's soul is a modern nonsense, however. As a novelist, I’ve written fiction about medieval heretics and child murderers in the 1980s. I assure you I’ve experience of neither. Cusk – like all storytellers – employs her imagination. Clearly, she has truths about herself to tell, but she seems to keep a firm dividing line between fiction and non-fiction. Second Place may draw on Cusk’s life but it isn’t "about her".
Yet, the hostility towards Cusk’s latest book, from some quarters, can almost be foretold. That whiny character M will be seen as her – petty, spoilt, brattish. No writer of Cusk’s skill would be shallow enough to create a character like M by way of some sneaky tribute to themselves. We must credit the author with more intelligence and sophistication. Cusk makes clear she knows her character is a pretentious pain, albeit an honest one. “I’m determined not to falsify anything even for the sake of narrative,” M says.
Cusk is a gifted writer. Her Outline trilogy was an elegant fictional observation of 21st-century life though the eyes of a savvy, flawed, reflective woman. Cusk is a voyager of female consciousness. Much of her writing brings to mind work by two other great women novelists: Clarice Lispector, best known for Hour of the Star in 1977, and Jean Rhys who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Both women – as with Cusk – hacked their way, with ruthless honesty, through forests of misogyny and female desire; brave and unabashed pioneers. Cusk follows their path, though at a gentler, more rarefied, slower pace.
Most of all though – and this is what makes Cusk worthy of the word "great", at least to some extent – she’s bidding to be a successor to Milan Kundera. She’s engaged in an exploration of being – of the philosophical underpinnings of what makes us human. Echoes of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being float through Second Place.
Like Emma Bovary and many Kundera characters, M thinks she can turn her life into a work of art. She puts art on a pedestal and kneels before it. In doing so, she risks destruction. We humans are real, after all, not works of art. Like Muriel Spark’s character Lise in The Driver’s Seat, M is engaged in searching for her own destruction at the hands of men. That’s a brave, dark idea to explore in 2021.
Cusk’s novel falls down in one crucial respect. Right at the end – after the novel closes – Cusk surfaces to tell us that Second Place is inspired by Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of the time DH Lawrence came to stay with her in New Mexico. The M and the L characters, a clear riff on Luhan’s tale. I’m one of a dwindling band of weirdos alive who’ve read Luhan’s book – and only then because I studied Lawrence at university.
Such literary showing off is entirely unnecessary. Second Place didn’t need characters pointlessly called M or L  – just give them names, for pity's sake – nor a narrative conceit lifted from Luhan. Any novel should be able to stand on its own two feet. Second Place can easily do that; to seek validity from a book few today have read is pointless, and just gives Cusk’s critics another excuse to attack her.

HeraldScotland: