Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Cutting Room: Louise Welsh

In Louise Welsh’s debut novel, The Cutting Room, Rilke, an auctioneer, is an unlikely detective as he combs the streets of the underworld in which the dirty, the dark and the unseen are the norm.

While the narrator’s proclivities keep him hovering both above and below the lines of the law, his ethos is strong. We – both the audience and Rilke – discover his boundaries when he finds evidence of a gruesome crime that propels him through the underground in search of its origins.

We trudge along the streets of Glasgow, into alleys and through velvet curtains to backrooms filled with stacks of pornography. We find that the world of antiques and dealers offers a portal to another, hidden sphere in which objects of sexual fantasy throughout history have secretly collected.

Some backstories develop through Rilke’s conversations, and, for the most part, this is satisfying; however, the main character’s own history is missing. We have the impression – and, indeed, another character implies – that Rilke’s need to solve this mystery is personally motivated but the details are absent. The pace of the novel lags as these backstories develop but this seems insignificant in the overall impact of the work itself.

Secondary characters consistently reflect an awareness of the city’s dual nature and, unsurprisingly, each bears some connection to the world of crime. Imagery and actions of the underground come to the fore in vivid detail. We are chillingly reminded that crime in the world of the criminal often meets swift, brutal justice and that people are reduced to expendable resources.

Most prominently, the dialogue is comfortable: it is that of the redeemer, the gossip and the secular sinner; it illustrates the carnivalesque and the profound, the ugly and the beautiful, the criminal and the lawful, in equal measure. It lulls us into each conversation with an immediate sense of intimacy. To great effect, Welsh uses references to popular culture, poetry and stunning figurative language as she pulls us into the world of pubs, auction houses, hospitals and dimly-lit, side-street stores.

We stare unflinchingly at the unsavoury details conjured through language that is both clear and poetic, but it is a novel of immense compassion. In fact, its spiritual tone is captured in Rilke’s own words: “… there are some bad individuals, but most people do their best to be good and everybody slips up sometimes.”

In our narrator we find a credible male voice and his thoughts, appetites and character strike us with force and precision. Through him, we smell garbage and litter in alleyways and we see blood and corpses under dark, grey skies but we also hear fear in the voices of those compelled to dwell here and sense the tragedy of those who, now immobile, would rather be elsewhere.

In the end, The Cutting Room is not merely a work of crime fiction; it is also a poignant essay concerning decisions and events that push us beyond our own expectations and the power of self-acceptance.

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
First Canadian Edition
Trade Paper, 294 pp

Published September 10, 2006

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