The effect is of someone making her way carefully through the world, always aware of the void below, well practiced in navigating with a command that both is and isn’t what it seems. Lahiri highlights this theme of precariousness as her narrator thinks back on a girlhood game, popular among her peers, of hopping from tree stump to tree stump:
It now occurs to me that I was as tenacious as I was timid. I never protested, I did what they did, that is, I clambered up, I hesitated, and then I strode across, afraid each time that the empty space between the stumps would swallow me up, terrified each time that I would fall, even though I never did.
She envies the “brazen strides” of the other girls, yet also prizes her outsider status.
Both of these books might sound bloodless, and yes, Cusk’s and Lahiri’s narrators seem to have freed themselves of the familiar forms of wanting. That hasn’t drained them of will, though. They are anything but passive or pain-averse, or fragile. They are desperate, and their refusals feel like a groping yet determined effort at survival—survival on terms they need to discover, define, understand. They don’t know what to do, but they feel they know what not to do: be a woman like other women.
For her whole life, Lahiri’s narrator has watched her mother give way to her father’s wishes. Cusk’s M has come to resist the demands of upkeep, of caretaking: “the feeling that my life has entailed too many practical tasks, so that if I add even one more to the total, the balance will be tipped and I will have to admit I have failed to live as I have always wished to.” Cusk and Lahiri know that motherhood and domesticity will eat you alive. They don’t know how to fix that, but their narrators know that a woman who wishes to be free has to not do a lot of things.
In a memorable scene in Cusk’s Transit, the second in her Outline trilogy, she captures the enchantment and the entrapment of domesticity. Her narrator, Faye, attends a dinner party at her cousin’s house in the country, complete with candles, music, pretty children, bejeweled women, all sheltered in a “long low farmhouse.” What could be lovelier? Yet before the evening is through, mayhem has set in and everyone is behaving very badly. Faye can’t get away fast enough the next morning. As she escapes the house, she says, “I felt change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like the plates of the earth blindly moving in the black traces.” Earth-shaking: That’s the daunting scale of transformation entailed—or at least desired. (Faye is well aware that her own children await her at home.)
I—and these novels confirm I’m not alone—also want some other life that can be lived by some alternative version of myself: unscripted, maybe lonely and uncomfortable. And that life starts with refusal. This in-between state is where the narrators of Second Place and Whereabouts exist. They are saying the essential no. For this reader at least, that’s a thrilling spectacle—and a yes, Cusk suggests, is perhaps hidden in there. “Might it be true,” M wonders late in the novel, as she considers her daughter’s future, “that half of freedom is the willingness to take it when it’s offered?”