The Cutting Room

The Cutting Room by Mary Watson(Penguin Books South Africa)

For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared.

Lucinda suspects that Amir has left her for good, although she can't know for sure because he left without a word.

Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly went wrong.

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with her work as a film editor, dinner parties, and nights with trendy boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town.

Her nosy, paranoid neighbour worries about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape.

Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda helps an old friend make a documentary about a haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek.

She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

The actual story isn’t this linear; it's more akin to a collage of stories, characters, relationships and themes.

The narrative jumps between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty.

When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. The narrative also goes back further, to Lucinda’s childhood with a single mother in an impoverished neighbourhood.

The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

What you get is a multifaceted story. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It's her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

The narrative is intensely psychological, plunging the reader into the depths of Lucinda's thoughts. The detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room relatively demanding, but rewarding. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details woven into her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold, it could be because she prides herself on being “aloof and unemotional”.

 When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. But Lucinda struggles with being alone. She relives happy memories of her marriage, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates domestic drama to psychological thriller. Countless details and stories involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present.

Notably, crime isn’t the primary source of menace. The novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but crime is just one aspect of a more complex portrayal of fear in general. One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

It's scary enough that a child would think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in.

But then the screaming woman emerges calling for help for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare in shock, until the woman runs off.

The sisters walk on but Lucinda is disturbed – was there really a drowning man? What about the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei?

She never learns the truth and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: “While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than incidents of crime. They are born of shameful secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions.

I particularly enjoyed the way the ghost stories of the Heuwelhoek house get under your skin. I was actually hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel.

But the book is primarily about Amir's disappearance and his relationship with Lucinda, told through stories within stories while main arc of narrative moves quite slowly. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

Admittedly, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective thriller; the challenge was to balance reflection and action.

For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases action but with gripping stories and encounters. Still, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Nevertheless The Cutting Room is very good - one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Read more of Lauren’s reviews on her book blog.

Follow Women24 on Twitter and like us on Facebook

Keen on reading this book? Buy your copy now.

Read this book yet? Tell us what you thought of the book in the comment box below.

Sign up for Women24 book club newsletter and stand a chance to win our top ten books from
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.