Fiction — print. Peirene Press, 2017. 129 pgs. Purchased.
Meike Ziervogel, the publisher of Periene Press, writes in her short introduction that she “commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that opposed each other on referendum day”. To achieve that aim, Cartwright gives us two characters — Grace, a documentary film maker from London, and Cairo Jukes, a day laborer in Dudley — and alternates their story in the “before” and the “after”.
“You people, is what struck her. That and the anger that flickered for a moment in his eyes, her own anger ignited briefly. You people, these judgement. She was not so blind to herself to realize it might have been her own prejudice reflected back at her. You people. These people.” (pg. 24)
The “before” and the “after” aren’t centered around the vote to Leave or Remain; in fact, the novella builds towards an explain of how a young woman has come to be on a city street with her hair on fire in the first few paragraphs while a cameraman watched. And that moment has more to do with Grace and Cairo’s relationship (or, lack thereof) than it does with Brexit.
For his part, Cartwright doesn’t attempt to offer a full economic or social or [insert latest take from British and American newspapers] explanation for Brexit through Cairo. The boxer turned day laborer tells Grace, who has arrived in Dudley to compile a short piece on the Leave campaign for viewers in London, that her understanding of why people plan to vote for Brexit show a fundamental misunderstanding about the campaign.
“People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong.” (pg. 101)
It’s not about “longing for the old days” or being anti-immigrant, although that’s why Cairo’s elderly father plans to vote for Leave. It’s not about misunderstanding how the inter-connectivity of the European and global markets work. Although, that particular explanation is demonstrated through Cairo’s employer (turned husband of Cairo’s ex-wife) as he wears an Italian suit, drives a German car, and meets with the local UKIP party at an Indian restaurant.
Rather, it is a protest against the “elite” taking people like Cairo for granted and telling them what to think. Cairo even expresses disgust at the media clamoring for Leave, claiming that they’re only doing so because they know Remain will win and they just want to have a bit of fun at the expense of the lower classes.
“It’s just a game to them, a funny game, like life’s a game. I bet the people writing these papers don’t vote to leave, I bet they live in fancy houses in London and they’ll vote to stay. They’m all doing fine, thank you very much. It’s like a double bluff.”
It is that explanation that hooks Grace in; it is that character sketch (and the one of Cairo’s daughter, Stacey-Ann, as she debates how best to introduce herself) that makes the novel. However, as the story unfolds and Grace and Cairo get to know one another, it begins to default to a series of cliches. The unplanned pregnancy and the father who reacts badly. The lack of communication that divides a couple and, to match the reason for the novel, a country.
And the ending? I reread it twice because I was rather dumbfounded as to why Cartwright would choose such a route. I’m still not sure as to the why, but I know that I found it over the top for a novella that tries so hard to be introspective. Infused with too much revolution for a story that focuses on one character who seems resigned rather than passionate about Leave and another character who seem to default into her position to Remain.
This is my first book for #20BooksofSummer. In October 2016, I contributed to the Peirene Press Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of this novella.