Mary Watson, like her contemporaries Diane Awerbuck and Henrietta Rose-Innes, has the skill and dexterity to produce both short stories and novels of startling imagination, atmosphere and raw power. Watson’s short story collection Moss stands out for its incredibly textured forays into territories of the uncanny and unhomely, ground she revisits in her latest opus, The Cutting Room. Concerned as much with the choppiness and sheer messiness of everyday life – its banality, its burdens, its sometimes brutal way of cutting down our dreams and replacing them with fears – as it is with reflections on the ways our lives as South Africans are shaped by a climate of fear and anxiety, the novel is as startling as it is evocative.
Having read and reread the novel (it is rather dense and demanding), I find that readers have all the more reason to be surprised at the directions of the narrative if they are furnished with only some basic outlines. Lucinda and Amir are our main characters, their troubled marriage one of the novel’s focal points. Lucy is a somewhat navel-gazing, alienated film editor (one of the many caveats tying in with the title), ever present, an unreliable narrator, shifting between past and present, with Amir her afflicted, aloof husband, offstage for much of the novel until its conclusion, and having disappeared after doing research on old housing and building methods. We encounter Lucy in the present after a bizarre knife attack in her own home, an attack which happened soon after Amir disappeared. Lucy’s investigation into Amir’s strangeness leading up to his disappearance, and the earlier romance that she shared with him, is one part of the novel. The following passage is instructive here:
Disappeared. Maybe it was melodramatic. Amir wouldn’t agree with disappeared; she’d known that he was going away for a few months. He always teased that she was wasted as an editor. She should have had a life in soap opera; she excelled at the small dramas, or else as a widow in a little village where everyone suffered, where calamity was trivial. She was better suited to that kind of life, where she could wear her disasters proudly. She told him she knew all too well what it was like to be abandoned by a husband.
After Amir’s disappearance Lucy finds the most graphic, disturbing photographs of violent pornography and human suffering among his things. We learn that Amir “was all about clues”, that he grew up in a household of women, obsessed with cuttings, of houses and women’s lips in particular. It gradually emerges that Amir has disappeared before, and that he became obsessed with old buildings that somehow managed to harness punitive potential in their very design, before he goes missing. Amir worked on alternative forms of punishment, embedded in the place of safety, the home itself, orchestrating incarceration, his anger simmering beneath the surface. The following question is posed: Isn’t there a link between bad architecture and crime? Amir had told them about a study in the eighties that questioned whether poor design in housing estates – lack of recreational space combined with the form and shape of buildings – had a causal link to crime. Certainly there was a correlation, for both victims and perpetrators, but it suggested that the design created poor neighbourliness and had a potentially negative psychological effect which could trigger criminal activities.
Much of the rest of the novel sees Lucy teaming up with an old flame, Thomas, to make a documentary film about a haunted house and ghosts. Heuwelhoek, an old mission station, and Princess Vlei, with its “dead princess walking the lake”, become the spaces of dread. I balk at giving away much more about the place or persuasion of the couple whose own narrative becomes the ectoplasmic mirror to Lucy’s own fractured marriage, but rest assured, the echoes are eminent and plentiful, so too the chill factor. However, Watson’s uncanny sense of doubling and echoes in the text are in full flight in this passage:
She had sensed that there was something about this project, this house that had rewired Thomas. Some days he seemed his usual self, elegant and controlled. But on others he wore an air of distraction, evident in his stained jeans, unbrushed hair. He had started to smell different too. A strong unpleasant odour that she could best describe as infected snot. She caught it only occasionally, but it was the smell of sickness, of being unwell. She looked again through the photographs, trying to find a creative reason for hundreds of printed pictures of the same thing. But she couldn’t. And not for the first time, she found the house unfriendly. That it seemed to be leaking a slow and invisible poison, and that both Thomas and she were being infected. She was suddenly frightened. More so than she had been when she first returned alone to her house after the attack. The house felt alive, like it had just woken up. Or else like she had finally tuned into something that had been there all along. She put the pictures down.
The Cutting Room is dedicated to Watson’s mother, Thelma, who “first introduced [her] to crime”. The novel is a hybrid form in that conjoins three distinct genres, the crime story, the ghost story and the love story, into a deliberately unwieldy, multilayered whole that reveals how “there are hundreds of ways of hurting someone”.
Far from being a conventional crime thriller in any recognisable sense (the featured detective Fernandez is all but perfunctory), the text is concerned, rather, with the intimate crimes that people commit in their everyday lives, the betrayals, duplicities and destructions they wreak upon those most intimately connected to them. Watson achieves a kind of echo or chorus at the end of each chapter with stories and newspaper cuttings about crime, from the sacred to the deeply profane, while she offers various insights into the nature and consequences of crime – both domestic and externalised terrors – in Lucy’s reflections and conversations with other characters.
A feeling of dread and anticipation is evoked right from the beginning:
Something was coming. At the end of that long moment – Lucinda later swore that she had heard the sound of the leaves screaming, even the sound of her plants drinking, that she could feel the clouds forming as water soaked from the ground – he came along the top of the wall.
For a small second she was impressed. It was a very high wall and he had moved with alacrity. Must have had lots of practice: at crime school, the walls are so high. How did criminals train? Lucinda was curious. What did they do to master their craft? Did they apprentice themselves to a mentor and hope for the best, or did they start more slowly? First an umbrella or a pen, something that wouldn’t be missed. Then a little pocket picked, and then a car window smashed, a house entered illicitly. Until a time when they could hold a knife to an exposed throat, when they could pull the trigger of a gun. But her man on the wall didn’t look like the kind of man who went for long explanatory answers.
On the very first page Lucy stands with “eyes like knives” as witness to a crime when she sees a burglar escaping with loot from a neighbour’s house. We are never told when this witnessing happens, but this subsequent passage reveals how crime penetrates the psyche of those both directly and indirectly affected:
She was just the witness. On his route as a burglar escaped, nothing more. Another person’s disaster comes too close. Yet something had broken for her. Not her window or the lock on her door, but something. It seemed tetchy to insist that it hurt her too. But on that morning Lucinda feared that her neighbour’s trouble had become her trouble and, if so, what was she meant to say next? Somewhere a script had been laid out, and she felt more words rise, threatening to come out in a high-pitched voice. But they didn’t. She had stage fright.
We can infer from her name that Watson intends Lucy to be read as an unreliable narrator, one whose name, Lucinda, Lucy, draws our attention implicitly to the ways in which she is able to distort the “truth” of the story she elucidates. It is no surprise that Lucy is a cutter, working for Fine Cut Studios, not one who literally inflicts harm by self-mutilation, but one that “cuts” in the editing room:
Lucinda was a cutter. She could take things apart with surgical precision – no frayed edges, no rips, no tears. She had a large butcher’s knife with a wide wicked blade that would slice the tongues of greedy, noisy children. Or so she threatened, when their parents weren’t looking. Don’t worry, her blade smiled, it will be one clean stroke: one lick, you won’t even know it’s coming. She cut into other people’s conversations, through rush hour traffic, from one side of town to the other. She did a mean scissor ump, split a deck of cards like a seasoned gambler, cut people down to size with a razor sharp tongue. Her skill, though, was in scything through time, it was knowing when to let a moment linger, when to move on. She did not waste a fraction of a second, nor did she cut too deep.
Lucy is obsessed with stories, and seems to live in her own world, one where the lines between fact and fiction are opaque at best:
It was all the same. So much the same that they were almost interchangeable, her friends and her serial detectives. Even her serial killers. Morse, Wexford, Poirot, Brunetti were her imaginary friends, at least she didn’t need to explain things to them. They didn’t feel sorry for her. With them, she could just slip in unnoticed, spend another quiet hour.
When she’s not spending time solving imaginary crimes, Lucy melodramatically longs for a ghost to keep her company:
Lucinda wanted a ghost. Her house was old, it needed a ghost. A nice ghost, perhaps a kind slave girl, dead before her time. Because of her wicked master’s wandering eye. Dead by her own hand. A tragedy, but beautiful. And her good ghost would watch over Lucinda while she slept and keep her safe.
The medium and method of photography, linking to Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Lucy’s blurring of boundaries between past and present, light and dark, comes to be connected to the shooting, cutting and capturing of ghosts:
Steadily, Lucinda cut and stitched, a surgeon piecing dismembered parts back together in one reformed whole. Shaping them into a house of light and shadow. Lucinda remembered again those people who didn’t like having their photograph taken, believing that it stole their souls. She felt like a wizard who had captured an essence of the people who’d been filmed and then breathed over it so it could take new forms. Shadows in light. The figures on screen were ghosts, but of the living.
I quote some of the novel’s striking paragraphs to illustrate its overarching focus on crime, fear, the gothic and the “doubled” and split nature of Lucy as protagonist:
It was important to Lucinda that others thought her brave. That she came across as easy, unafraid. So she didn’t like crime stories. She didn’t trade experiences of break-ins and muggings. She disliked the burglar bars, laser sensors and gated streets that turned the suburbs into a sprawling fortress. The fear was insidious: it limited movement and muffled thought. And it was an unfocused fear that sought figures in the fog, that didn’t quite know what it was up against and so exaggerated and demonised the perceived danger.
When she returned from the hospital there were no clues to show what had happened. Poirot would have nothing to work with – no burnt letter fragment in the grate, no crushed glass on the terracotta. The bed was neatly made, her Irish linen intact. What secrets did Zurayah keep – the woman must have been a witch: how had she managed to get blood out of white fabric so that it looked as it did before?
Stitched back together not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Lucinda moved through the house now rendered unfamiliar by absence, as she did when Amir left, as if she were a ghost. An architect’s house: well-lit, good finishes. The original house was Victorian. From the front, it was the usual single-storey Victorian freestanding house with a bay window; the ceilings were pressed metal and the floorboards Oregon pine.
Inside the house, she did not expect bloodstains on the walls, chalk outlines in the dining room. But she had rather thought to find the house marked by its past. That perhaps the air would be different, perhaps suffused with sorrow; a mournfulness that would not be lifted by vacuuming or dusting.
The other Lucy. Like a shadow who came and went, living Lucinda’s life in the moments she didn’t notice, in the moments when she wasn’t quite there. The other Lucy was always elusive: just through the door, left the room but seconds ago. And when Lucinda did something that Cat didn’t like, or didn’t want to share her chips and sweets, Cat – with her tight little smile – would say, “The other Lucy wouldn’t do that. She’s much nicer.” Though Lucinda couldn’t see how she was nicer if she was stealing her life, pretending to be her. But it made her feel panicky, the idea of the imposter Lucy being nicer than her, winning everyone over. Eventually even replacing her. The idea that she, the real Lucy, was unnecessary, redundant. And the other Lucy, the nice Lucy, her good twin, was out there charming all Lucy’s friends and family. That if the other Lucy was the good one, then she must be the evil twin. They couldn’t both be good. But Lucy would call herself back: of course, the other Lucy didn’t exist. Of course there was just her, both good and evil. But somehow through playing the game against and again, through all the casual references to the other Lucy, the good twin, Cat and Lucinda had called her into being. Summoned a separate Lucy who lived Lucinda’s life in the gaps. The other Lucy. The one who did the things that Lucinda would not admit to. The one who wasn’t there. Additional panic buttons, electric fencing, laser beams, there were many ways to turn an urban dwelling into a fortress. She would order the laser beam and create a criss-cross of invisible lines that had to remain unbroken; a modern princess inside her castle, protected by a tangle of briars.
Lucinda had mixed feelings. She used to dislike the stories on principle, because she disliked the political pessimism that accompanied them, she hated moral outrage over expensive wine and fashionable recipes. She wanted to distance herself from the middle class whingeing that worried and fretted about property and ownership, or else benevolently tutted over the plight of the poor. She didn’t want to be one of those people who talked about crime. But. Things had changed. As long as it wasn’t her story, and as long as it wasn’t Dora telling it, Lucinda had begun to seek out the stories of thugs commando-crawling beneath electrified fences. Not that she wished ill on anyone else, but it somehow helped to hear that she wasn’t the only one. She found becoming a victim an alienating experience – it made her feel different, marked. She began to crave hearing other people’s stories. As if there was some secret society of victims. And it helped, because it was lonely work being a victim. But she noticed that even the others who didn’t know what it was like were also drawn to the stories. It was as if they were enthralled by the various possible arrangements of terror. Like items on a menu: how do you like your muggings, ma’am?
They were talking about crime again, as they always did at dinner parties these days. Someone would always be compelled to tell a new nightmare they’d heard about: a man glued to his bicycle by thieves, a child tied up for hours, a woman stripped down to her underwear. These indignities echoed on at dinner parties: a hint of scandal to make the respectable more edgy. And like Chinese whispers, or a nursery rhyme, everyone always came back to the chorus: a new crime story. All together now.
Having a “cutter” as the protagonist enables Watson to occasion the novel’s symbolic space as a veritable cutting room, a space where the attentive reader is allowed an intimate view of the way that fiction is shaped, formed, contorted and cut into workable forms. A self-reflexive echo chamber of ideas and philosophies emerges, centred upon the manner in which meaning is inherent and constructed, edited and amended in transcendent and quotidian moments:
Even then, Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second.
At a push one could argue for the mind as one such cutting room, where we edit our own lives, trying to forget our past traumas while holding on to the good of the present.
Readers will encounter various references to fairy tales such as those of Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, in reference to overall moments of predation and menace, while the fantastical aspects of the ghost story and the fairy tale references are balanced out with explorations of the working and living conditions in Blue Down and Delft, Watson unpacking how “Cape Town exploits its geography”.
Watson’s writing is beautifully arch, cuttingly humorous, acerbic, acidly comical at times. The reader is seldom sure when the next cut in space and time will come, equally unsure of the diverse forms of wounds and wounding that will take place. Fittingly, knives often feature, and Lucy, the cutter, is attacked by a sharp knife.
Ultimately, the blurring of boundaries reminds one of the feel of David Lynch’s darkest, most playful works, like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, and it’s no surprise that Watson completed her PhD on the editing process where scenes of difficulty or trauma were represented. Having made the move from Cape Town to Galway in Ireland, her unique writing aesthetic and feel for the connections between words, people and haunted landscapes remain as potent as ever.