The Cut by Anthony Cartwright: A tale of two countries

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.

14 thoughts on “The Cut by Anthony Cartwright: A tale of two countries”

  1. I actually found myself sympathising more with Cairo – his experiences chimed more with mine (and particularly those of my relatives) than Grace’s privileged background. I love the way it shows that nothing is clear cut, black and white.

  2. The social divisions in the UK now are worrying. What I still don’t get is why characters like those you mention in this book who feel marginalised and unheard voted Leave: what was it about leaving the EU that would somehow improve things? This novel seems to probe at such questions, but I daresay there are no clear cut answers. Where do we go from here? I’m deeply saddened by the result of the referendum, too, and by the way it’s polarised and destabilised not just the UK but maybe Europe too. Well done Peirene Press for commissioning this.

    1. No, I don’t think there are easy answers to this one. I suspect that the referendum vote was a howl of protest from people ill-served for years. It was also the result of a colossal arrogance in assuming that the result would be Remain by the government in charge at the time together with appalling ‘campaigns’ by both sides plus the vitriol of the tabloids. I had naively thought we’d have debate based on well-presented credible information. And, yes, well done Peirene!

  3. This sounds an interesting read, and a good way of trying to bridge the gap created by a divisive referendum that forced people to choose one side or the other and then battered them whatever their decision. I’m not sure, yet, that any answers will be found in literature because unfortunately the nature of the industry seems most likely to serve only one side of the story. But the effort to understand is important, I think. Excellent review, Susan.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. I know what you mean about the nature of publishing – much more likely to be Remainers than Leavers – but Cartwright takes care to explore how we may have got to this sorry state of division in the first place and to portray Leavers as people with real concerns rather than easy stereotypes.

  4. This sounds like a very relevant novel. The beginning itself captured my interest – the woman on fire and no one helping her. Nice that the book was crowd funded successfully since it focusses a lot on the Brexit issue.

    1. It’s absolutely on the button for what’s happening here in the UK at the moment. Our Brexit preoccupation seems to have drowned out other news, though, which isn’t good.

  5. Have you read Ali Smith’s Autumn? It would be interesting to see how the novels compare as reflections on Brexit.
    I think some voted Leave because if the system doesn’t work for you, you vote against the system. But there is also an older generation who are doing well but have a nostalgic belief in a Britain which never existed.

    1. I haven’t yet but it’s on my list. I’ve heard several instances of people saying they voted Leave in anger or to get at David Cameron but were dismayed when Remain lost. I think your comment about ‘false’ nostalgia is spot on. There are still many people who have trouble in accepting that we no longer have an empire (a relief to many of us!) nor are we the great power we once were although, ironically, that power will be further lessened by leaving the EU.

  6. Sounds like a book I should read. Thanks for the review. I think one of the most depressing things about the whole thing was the complete lack of political leadership on all sides on this subject. It suited too many of them not to put out a really strong message about what we gained from being part of the EU. We’re discovering that now because we’re going to lose it.

    1. I agree, absolutely, Victoria. The informed debate that I hoped would happen never did, just mudslinging and untruths. Not the basis on which to make a decision. Far too much in the way of self rather than national interest shown on all sides, too.

  7. A brave decision to commission this book at a time when emotions are still running so high on the future of UK in Europe. But hooray for someone willing to go beyond the pat slogans and false promises (like the one about all the £M the NHS would get if we exited) and to talk about the real issues

    1. I’m very impressed with this series. Both breach and The Cut have offered fresh insight into complex but crucial issues. I think the next one is to be on the Middle East.

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