In the weeks leading up to the 2016 EU Referendum in Britain, a London-based film crew travel up to an old industrial town in the West Midlands to document the views of some of its residents.
The team are led by the beautiful and vivacious Grace, who becomes taken with one inhabitant in particular. Cairo is a former boxer subsisting on precarious employment contracts and living with his parents, daughter and baby grandson. What begins as a keen interest in the earthy wisdom of a local inhabitant careers off track.
The two are embroiled in an ill-fated affair before either realises what is happening.
Shaken by the result of the EU referendum, Peirene editor, Meike Ziervogel, sought catharsis through literature. She commissioned Dudley-born author Anthony Cartwright to write a work of fiction that reflected how the issue had exposed underlying social chasms.
The fruit of this labour was destined to be somewhat pained. The Cut kicks, screams and scratches its way to the bitter end. The symbolism of the title itself is manifold. The Cut is external; a place laden with memories both private and communal. It is internal and deeply personal, as Cairo reflects on the disappointments and unfulfilled potential that seem to be the sum of his life. It is societal; Brexit being the reification of a rupture that began long ago on a national scale.
The Times Literary Supplement has described Peirene’s slim fiction as “…two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film”.
However, even having become accustomed to Cartwright’s lyrical prose and phonetically written regional dialect (GB Shaw-style), The Cut is not a speed-read. The author’s penchant for poeticism and elliptical narrative is like an elusive beauty; all at once intriguing and frustrating. After some time spent in their company, you are still no closer to knowing what they are really about.
It is hard to shake the sense of skipping a step. Passages need to be read and re-read for hidden meaning or missed clues. Grace and Cairo’s relationship either takes whirlwind romance to the extreme or is a glorified one-night stand. It is clear that there is supposed to be something potent and transcendent between them but there is a gaping hole in the foundation.
Their fling is a distraction to the point of being extraneous. If the aim is to make the story more compelling, it is not essential. An inter-generational friendship in the vein of I, Daniel Blake would have been more moving still.
Presumably, the doomed liaison between Cairo and Grace is emblematic of the existing socio-economic fault-lines in modern Britain. The oblivious bourgeoisie and the misunderstood proletariat. The privileged South and the neglected North. Any attempt to traverse the gulf is vulnerable to misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, The Cut has enough pathos without the star-crossed lovers’ angle. Despite a certain opacity, ironically Cartwright is adept at getting straight to the heart of the issue. His deconstruction of well-meaning but inadvertently condescending attitudes towards the economically disadvantaged is at once trenchant and empathetic.
The events on which the novel is based are fresh and the wounds still raw. The themes of entrenched class-based prejudice and misperception en masse have an urgent relevance. The UK is still in post-Referendum and General Election limbo. The country is in collective mourning and reeling from the shock of Grenfell; a tragic cautionary tale about the unforeseen consequences of the class divide, amongst other factors. Cartwright could not have predicted just how germane The Cut would be.
The Cut – out now on Pereine Press.