What unites us?
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.