Excerpt from Second Place by Rachel Cusk, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Second Place

by Rachel Cusk

Second Place by Rachel Cusk X
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
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  • First Published:
    May 2021, 192 pages

    Apr 2022, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Print Excerpt

Second Place

I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life. It was like a contamination, Jeffers: it got into everything and turned it bad. I don't think I realised how many parts of life there were, until each one of them began to release its capacity for badness. I know you've always known about such things, and have written about them, even when others didn't want to hear and found it tiresome to dwell on what was wicked and wrong. Nonetheless you carried on, building a shelter for people to use when things went wrong for them too. And go wrong they always do!

Fear is a habit like any other, and habits kill what is essential in ourselves. I was left with a kind of blankness, Jeffers, from those years of being afraid. I kept on expecting things to jump out at me – I kept expecting to hear the same laughter of that devil I heard the day he pursued me up and down the train. It was the middle of the afternoon and very hot, and the carriages were crowded enough that I thought I could get away from him merely by going and sitting somewhere else. But every time I moved my seat, a few minutes later there he'd be, sprawled across from me and laughing. What did he want with me, Jeffers? He was horrible in appearance, yellow and bloated with bloodshot bile-coloured eyes, and when he laughed he showed dirty teeth with one entirely black tooth right in the middle. He wore earrings and dandyish clothes that were soiled with the sweat that came pouring out of him. The more he sweated, the more he laughed! And he gabbled non-stop, in a language I couldn't recognise – but it was loud, and full of what sounded like curses. You couldn't exactly ignore it, and yet that was precisely what all the people in the carriages did. He had a girl with him, Jeffers, a shocking little creature, nothing more than a painted child who was barely clothed – she sat on his knee with parted lips and the soft gaze of a dumb animal while he fondled her, and nobody said or did a thing to stop him. Of all the people on that train, was it true that the one most likely to try was me? Perhaps he followed me up and down the carriages to tempt me into it. But it was not my own country: I was only passing through, going back to a home I thought of with secret dread, and it didn't seem up to me to stop him. It's so easy to think you don't matter all that much at the very moment when your moral duty as a self is most exposed. If I'd stood up to him, perhaps all the things that happened afterwards wouldn't have occurred. But for once I thought, let someone else do it! And that is how we lose control over our own destinies.

My husband Tony sometimes says to me that I underestimate my own power, and I wonder whether that makes living more hazardous for me than for other people, the way it's dangerous for those who lack the ability to feel pain. I've often thought that there are certain characters who can't or won't learn the lesson of life, and that they live among us as either a nuisance or a gift. What they cause can be called trouble or it can be called change – but the point is, though they may not mean to or want to, they make it happen. They're always stirring things up and objecting and upsetting the status quo; they won't just leave things be. They themselves are neither bad nor good – that's the important thing about them – but they know good from bad when they see it. Is this how the bad and the good continue to flourish alongside each other in our world, Jeffers, because certain people won't let either one get the upper hand? That day on the train, I decided to pretend not to be one of them. Life looked so much easier all of a sudden, over there behind the books and newspapers people were holding up in front of their faces to hide the devil from their sight!

Excerpted from Second Place by Rachel Cusk. Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Cusk. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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