''Second Place'' : by Rachel Cusk. ''Second Place'' is Cusk's first novel since the Outline trilogy concluded with ''kudos'' in 2018. Admirers of those books will feel at home here, perhaps too much so.

The narrator is familiar : a sharply observant writer in middle age. The themes are similar, too. : art, literature, travel, fate, houses, physical beauty and its perceived fading, and parenthood, described here as ''the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny..''

But much is different. Unlike the Outline novels, ''Second Place,'' tells a single story and takes place in one household : it's about a limited set of characters. More notably, this book has a swirling hothouse quality that's new.

It's as if Cusk has been reading Joyce Carol Oates best novels. She digs into the gothic cores of family and romantic entanglements.

The story is this : M, a writer who lives with her second husband, Tony, on a remote piece of property, invites, L,  a famous younger painter whose work she admires, to come and stay in their ''second place,' a cabin that's an artist's retreat of sorts, one they often lend out.

''I would like to come here, to see what it looks like through your eyes,'' M writes to L., describing the ''conundrum'' of the landscape to him. ''It is full of desolation and solace and mystery, and it hasn't yet told its secret to anyone.''

This is probably the place to pause and say that Cusk tell us, in a short afterword, that her novel ''owes a debt to 'Lorenzo in Taos,' Mabel Dodge Luhan's 1932 memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico.''

You don't need to have read Luhan's memoir to enjoy Cusk's novel. Luhan's book is a treat, though, and deserves to be better known. Lawrence was irritable and intense, as is L in Cusk's novel..

One doesn't come to a Cusk novel for plot but for her extra-fine psychological apparatus. Yet there is a fair amount of plot in ''Second place.'' M's 21-year-old daughter, Justine is home with her boyfriend. M loves her daughter but resents the way children force their parents to give up their places in the sun.

You know when you're reading a page of Rachel Cusk's fiction. Her narrator's tug insistently if coolly at the central knots of being. They analyze every emotion as if it were freshly invented. Nothing is extraneous.

The slightly detached, hot-but-cold quality of cusk's work is emphasized by her publisher's striking use of the serifless roman typeface Optima, with wide leading between the lines. Optima is unusual to see in a novel; it delivers to my eyes a chill sense of the void.

Cusk has employed Optima at least since the Outline trilogy, the novels that made her name unignorable. it's as distinctive, in its way, as The New Yorkers Irvine font. I tried using it to type this piece. It made me feel I was working on Laurie Anderson's laptop.

If I could have rubbed a lamp and lightened this book's lurid intensities, I might have. It is not a novel that gladdens. the soul But gladdening the soul has never been Cusk's project.

The World Students Society thanks review author Dwight Garner.


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