The Cut is the second in the Peirene Now! series, books commissioned by the publisher’s founder, Mieke Ziervogel, in response to the questions shaping our world. The first was Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ collection, breach, based on the stories they’d gathered in Calais and the now defunct ‘Jungle’ refugee camp just outside the town. This one addresses the profound dismay many of us felt after the result of the EU referendum here in the UK a year ago. Ziervogel commissioned it because:
‘The result of the EU referendum shocked me. I realised that I had been living in one part of a divided country. What fears – and what hopes – drove my fellow citizens to vote for Brexit? I commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that have opposed each other since the referendum day.’
The result is The Cut, funded through crowdsourcing.
Cartwright’s novel opens dramatically with a woman in flames, running down the street. A man is filming her, no one tries to stop her until someone on a mobility scooter throws a blanket over her. From there, the story of Grace and Cairo unfolds. Grace is the archetypal privileged young professional woman, a film maker who has come to Dudley in the Midlands to make a documentary about what was once a prosperous, industrialised town, now living off scraps. She meets Cairo, working-class, already a grandfather in his forties and firmly rooted in Dudley. Cairo stands a little apart from his raucous workmates: well-versed in the history of his home town and articulate with it, he makes an excellent interviewee, agreeing to fill in the background information Grace lacks. These two disparate people, each apparently on opposites sides of a deep divide, become attracted to each other but it’s clear there can be no happy ending here.
Cartwright’s narrative flashes forward and back to before the vote and after, telling his story in the main from Cairo’s point of view with the occasional interpolation from Grace. Through Cairo, Cartwright carefully constructs a view of a very different Britain from the one I inhabit: rundown; few opportunities; full of men and women fed up with being told what to do and think by people like Grace – people like me, if I’m honest – and firmly in the Leave camp not because they’re stupid but because they’re angry or see no hope for a future for themselves and their children. ‘These people’ is a refrain that haunts the novel, a contemptuous dismissal, which has cost us all a great deal. Cartwright is careful to avoid painting the two sides in black and white – the issue of immigration is neatly dealt with, far from the only factor in Leavers’ decisions; Cairo’s daughter seems likely to vote Remain while we never learn how Cairo voted. The relationship between Cairo and Grace is a very effective way of representing two opposing sides of an apparently unbridgeable argument and Cartwright uses it well.
It’ll come as no surprise if you’re a regular reader of this blog that I voted Remain. I’m not naïve enough to believe that the EU is perfect but you can’t reform an institution of which you’re not a member. Like Ziervogel, I was shocked and horrified by the result, but I felt that we should try to understand how it came about. I’ve thought long and hard about it over the past year, coming to much the same conclusion that Cartwright seems to in The Cut. I’m still a staunch Remainer, still European and still angry about the way in which our politicians mishandled and continue to mishandle the referendum and its result but I know I’m guilty of ignorance of the discontent that clearly marks our country and the reasons for it. We Remainers need to try to understand how that has come about rather than dismiss all Leavers as racist and stupid because they’re not like us. That said, it was a close result. The people may well have spoken, as we’re constantly reminded, but 52% of those who voted wanted us to leave the EU, 48% of us chose to remain. We have also spoken.