What unites us?

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Jude Cook

The Cut by An­thony Cartwright Peirene, 176pp

If any decade could be de­scribed as low and dis­hon­est, it’s surely the present one. Given the acres of news anal­y­sis, and the glacial pace of pub­lish­ing, how might a nov­el­ist ad­dress what is hap­pen­ing now? Ali Smith’s Au­tumn and Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land nav­i­gate Bri­tain’s post-ref­er­en­dum land­scape, but so far rapid-re­sponse fic­tion has been rare.

An­thony Cartwright’s The Cut, pub­lished a year after the vote, is unique in that it was com­mis­sioned specif­i­cally to ex­plore Brexit. Fol­low­ing log­i­cally from his nov­els such as Heart­land and Iron Towns, set in his na­tive Mid­lands of Eng­land, Cartwright’s di­a­mond-sharp novella digs deep into the po­lit­i­cal quag­mire, drama­tis­ing the ref­er­en­dum’s op­pos­ing ide­o­log­i­cal stand­points via a man and a woman from very dif­fer­ent class back­grounds. This is Eng­land as two dis­tinct na­tions, both try­ing, but fail­ing, to un­der­stand the other.

Cairo Jukes is an ex-boxer re­duced to “tat­ting” – dig­ging up cop­per pipes from the lost in­dus­trial hey­day of the Black Coun­try. His life is spent try­ing to stay out of the pub and keep in touch with his daugh­ter and mixed-race grand­child. As the ref­er­en­dum ap­proaches, Grace Tre­vithick, a doc­u­men­tary maker from Hamp­stead in Lon­don ar­rives in Dud­ley, near Birm­ing­ham, in­tent on in­ter­view­ing Cairo and his cronies. Ini­tially hos­tile to this mid­dle-class in­ter­loper (“He wanted to say some­thing, about the sense of his world be­ing made in­vis­i­ble, mute”), Cairo un­ex­pect­edly finds Grace a re­ju­ve­nat­ing force. She is equally at­tracted to him, forc­ing them both to re-eval­u­ate their stances on Brexit along the way.

Hard though it is to ex­plore such a com­plex po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion through only two lives and lo­ca­tions, Cartwright mostly man­ages to make Cairo and Grace tran­scend stereo­type. Mor­dant ironies abound, dis­till­ing back­sto­ries that a longer novel might have laboured over. While Grace swims in Hamp­stead ponds, think­ing idly of a fam­ily “tea set in the at­tic … all the way from In­dia”, Cairo’s daugh­ter lives in a world where peo­ple bur­gle houses for “a bit of change … money for the kids’ sweets or the bingo”. Cairo’s boss is shown “in his Ger­man car and his Leave sticker, in his Ital­ian shirts”, while flow­ers planted on a round­about are “EU-funded”.

The book’s cen­tre­piece – a fra­cas in a Dud­ley curry house where Ukip ac­tivists hold their reg­u­lar Fri­day meet­ings – is also qui­etly em­blem­atic of leave vot­ers’ hypocrisy on the sub­ject of im­mi­gra­tion. In­deed, Cartwright demon­strates how “this car­ry­ing on about for­eign­ers”, as Cairo’s daugh­ter puts it, and a work­ing-class aver­sion to a metropoli­tan elite (“I bet the peo­ple writ­ing these pa­pers don’t vote to leave, I bet they live in fancy houses in Lon­don”), ir­re­vo­ca­bly mud­died the waters of the de­bate.

These are vividly imag­ined lives, ren­dered with the con­cise strokes of an ex­pe­ri­enced por­traitist. In cer­tain re­spects, The Cut re­calls the so­cial prob­lem nov­els of the 19th cen­tury, such as Dick­ens’s Hard Times or Dis­raeli’s Sy­bil. In­ter­est­ing times, to in­voke the fa­bled curse, de­mand that nov­el­ists ad­dress them ur­gently, and Cartwright has risen to the chal­lenge.

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