When Peirene Press announced that it had commissioned a novel about Brexit, I could not resist getting involved and sponsoring it. Publisher Meike Ziervogel found author Anthony Cartwright, whose previous novels, although ostensibly mainly about football, also portrayed a community in decline. This is the ‘diminished community’ of the Black Country, which used to be one of the most industrialised (and therefore also one of the most polluted) areas of England, with coal mining, steelworks, glass factories and brickworks all spewing their bile into the atmosphere. Nowadays pretty much all of these industries have died and it’s become an area of boarded-up shops and high unemployment. A perfect setting, in other words, for the ‘forgotten people’ who voted for Brexit.
Cairo Jukes from Dudley is a former boxer, already a grandfather in his early forties, and supports himself though hourly work cleaning up industrial sites. His daughter Stacey-Ann has been kicked out by her mother after giving birth to a ‘coloured’ baby and now lives with her grandparents. Then Grace Trevithick turns up in their lives: posh, educated, a successful documentary maker trying to capture ‘the mood of the country’ just before the referendum.
As the two near extremes of the spectrum meet, they find out more about each other’s beliefs and ways of life. As they talk and learn to look beyond the convenient stereotypes, they begin to have a dialogue – that element which was so profoundly missing from the frenzied media hollering just before the EU referendum.
All you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. That we’m all stupid. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that. It lets all of you lot off the hook.
‘I doh think they feel like they’ve lost out. They have lost out.’
‘Isn’t that the same thing?’
‘No, thass part of the problem, thinking that it is. We’m sitting in one of the places we’ve lost. You make out like it’s our problem, it’s only about how we feel, but we have lost… It’s a fact. You can prove it… The loss, actual loss. Jobs, houses, security, all them things.’
Cairo and Grace come together in a moment which feels too brief to be a love story, too steeped in misunderstandings and mismatched expectations to allow for a happy ending. But it is not just a coming together of two individuals and of what they symbolise. There are plenty of characters who dispel the notion of a monolithic Brexit voter. For every Tony ‘in his German car and his Leave sticker, in his Italian shirts, with his English attitudes’ and Romanian and Albanian workers, there is also a younger, confused Stacey-Ann who would like to improve her career prospects and feels that ‘it’s not right, all this carrying on about foreigners, people moving on to get a better life’ but at the same time considers ‘you couldn’t think people were better because they were foreign. Some people did, teachers they’d had at school. That’s just another kind of prejudice.’ For every gentle granddad mourning the lost way of life but admitting that some things are far easier nowadays, there is a table of UKIP voters handing out leaflets in an Indian restaurant.
Cartwright has a great eye for revealing details and the often ridiculous contradictions of both positions. My one criticism of the book is that the phonetic reproduction of the local dialect made it a bit hard going at times. Nevertheless, the remarkable achievement here is that the author makes it far easier to empathise with Cairo and his family, even for those of us who were avid Remainers. A timely and important book, showing us that answers are never simple, but that the only way to progress as a society is to remain open and curious about each other. And really listen.
28 thoughts on “The Cut by Anthony Cartwright – the #Brexit Novel”
Timely and important, indeed. I’m so impressed with Peirene for commissioning this series, using fiction as a means of clarification and as a starting point for debate.
I think that, although they are by no means going to give up on their translated fiction series, they are also going to expand the Peirene Now series, for precisely that purpose – to get us to understand other people and cultures via fiction and open up our minds to having a constructive instead of a destructive debate.
I believe they’re tackling the Middle East next
Yes, they are running storytelling workshops in a refugee camp in Lebanon and will publish their stories next. Great idea, especially since many of them have been refugees there for a generation or more. My friend’s mother was a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and married her Lebanese father.
This sounds like a fascinating book. I always think it’s important for people on both sides of a debate to listen to each other’s views and try to understand, even if they still don’t end up agreeing.
Exactly. We don’t need to agree, but we need to understand where the other person is coming from and why they might think in a certain way.
It sounds like a very timely read, both balanced and thoughtful. As I as reading your review, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a series of conversations that Radio 4 commissioned in the months following Brexit, each episode was a 1:1 dialogue between a remainer and a leaver. I think they were part of R4’s broader Listening Project where two people who know one another have a conversation about a particular topic. As you say here, the key is to listen to others, even if their views don’t necessarily coincide with our own.
Sadly, it appears that social media and shorter attention spans have made it easier for people to cast vitriol at each other before they even hear the end of a sentence. On both sides.
I agree with all of the above. There were serious divisions and heated exchanges within my own family – it’s an extremely distressing and divisive time.
Ah, at least I am spared that (when it comes to Romanian politics, however…). But I think I lost a few friends in the process…
Oh I must read this, Marina Sofia. It sounds as though it brings the Brexit issues to a human level. And, in the end, that’s the best way to really understand them – at that level. And I couldn’t agree more about your last point. We do need to really listen and understand each other.
This sounds … well… different although perhaps it’s a topic we will read more of in the years to come. Did it ever feel forced when if came to discussing issues?
It didn’t feel preachy, or full of the expected set pieces. The ending was incredibly moving – and it starts off with a bang as well. The dual timeline (before and after the referendum) did confuse me somewhat, but I can see why the author chose to structure it like that. I tend to prefer more linear structures.
I bought it.
Kudos to Peirene for tackling a sensitive topic like this. I suspect we’ll see a lot more Brexit related books in coming years
I think it’s inevitable. But in time the sensitivities might be less acute…
Maybe – it will depend what kind of Brexit deal is secured I suspect. Whatever happens there will be some unhappy people
Delighted to see a publisher choosing to engage.
Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
Check out the book, The Cut, by Anthony Cartwright, as featured on the Finding Time To Write blog
Sounds good, when it could have been awful (a hastily produced issue novel) but it sounds like the issues are grounded in a solid story and believable characters, which will only make it more powerful. I’ll definitely be reading this.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, when you get the chance…
Kuddos to Pereine for commissioning this. I bet Brexit will be a theme in novels in the future.
These former heavily industrialized regions have not recovered from the loss of their steel plants & mining industries. It’s the same in France, in the North and in Lorraine
But people’s views and actions are puzzling sometimes.
Like here in Moselle: people votes for Marine Le Pen whose program was to go out of the euro zone and close the borders. And 49 000 of them work in Luxembourg, cross the border everyday and are happy to get paid in euros. And 19 000 work in Germany and do the same!
Somewhere, the message was lost and a lot of pedagogy would be necessary.
I don’t know. Maybe I should read it. But there was so much nationalism and anti-immigrant bias in the Brexit debate and among those opposed. I think of poor Jo Cox and her children and spouse.
The anti-Brexiters are similar, I believe, to many Trump voters, to whom I can’t relate. Promises of jobs to them, but not the jobs they had and are angry about losing, as in mining country.
You won’t believe it maybe, but I went with my kids to watch Cars 3 yesterday and I came out ranting about how it seemed to be catering to the Trump voters who believed the jobs would come back to the US car industry and make America great again…
Nostalgia for something that was never quite as good as people remember it. And always hatred of the other.
But I think it’s still important to listen to the other – both sides need to – even if we can’t agree. And this book offers a more nuanced understanding. I think the Brexiters had no idea really what they were voting for, it was more of a protest vote, while Trump supporters knew very well the kind of man that they were voting for… And they secretly rather liked that.