In the Cut is an extraordinary novel, a powerful, disquieting but truly significant read, particularly in the light of #MeToo. A quarter century after its first publication this book still has the power to shock, the ending will chill you to the bone. This is a challenging novel but we need to face up to uncomfortable truths about human nature and our darker selves to better understand our world. The novel is frank and sexually explicit but never gratuitous, Moore fully understands the difference between erotic and repugnant or deviant, something she confronts in the novel.

I think In the Cut (no prizes for guessing what that alluded to/is slang for) is a highly original novel, perhaps even unique for its time. One that will be better understood by a wider audience now than it was in 1995 when readers might have allowed the candid sex to get in the way. Moore is a wordsmith of some talent, there’s not a misplaced word here and that goes for her descriptions of violence too. In the Cut is an unflinching portrait of an intelligent but flawed woman pushing her life to the edge, seeking new experiences and testing her sexual boundaries. She refuses to conform to the perceived role of a woman in her position, she’s an explorer of her own psyche and the psyche of those around her. She is constantly observing her world but she has a blind spot around men. With a murderer on the loose her attitudes to men and risk ultimately lead her into danger. There’s a sense that Franny, we only get her name from something a friend says, had a dislocated childhood, perhaps even lacking in emotional contact. Franny decided a long time ago that no man would control her life, she would never ‘belong’ to anyone, she is deeply suspicious of men and their motives, but she is drawn to them, and not the best of them. The world around her is getting darker but Franny feels she has control because she uses men much the way the wrong kind of men, more traditionally, use women.

In the Cut is explosive, the sense of tension is palpable and the apprehension one can feel is a genuine pain in the gut. So it may sound mad to say I enjoyed this book because it’s about sex and violence leading to murder, it’s visceral, brutal and edgy, but. . . And here’s my point, it’s also poetic, fiercely intelligent and eye opening.

In the Cut is a perfect exercise in sharp, taut prose writing, crisp passages and storytelling at a blistering pace. There’s also humour and wry observation here, the inter-generational exchanges between professor and students are witty. Franny, a lecturer, tells us her students, ‘don’t get irony’ but irony is hard to explain to those who don’t get it. They get realism but don’t like Hemingway the man, they are judgemental. They have their idealism, their youth, but also their naivety. Wasn’t she just the same when younger?

Franny teaches creative writing at NYU, narrating her own story, heightening the intimacy of the novel. She is writing a book on slang; regionalism, dialect and eccentricities of pronunciation, she has a love of idiomatic language. One of the students, Cornelius, questions whether they are guinea pigs for her work because of their racial, street backgrounds. Franny insists on the correct spelling of words, good grammar, certainly not phonetic spelling, learn the craft first. Language is important in the novel, words seen in relation to action.

She takes Cornelius to the Red Turtle bar, she doesn’t normally do that, but he’s struggling with his assignment to fictionalise a factual story. The idea is to get him away from writing about himself. Cornelius’ topic is the execution of John Wayne Gacy the killer of thirty-three young men. Franny heads to the toilet but mistakenly enters an office, a red headed woman is kneeling in front of a man on a sofa, her head bobbing in the act of fellatio. The man’s face is the only thing in shadow, a small tattoo on his wrist is clear as he holds the woman’s head. When Franny returns to the bar Cornelius has gone.

Franny lives alone in a brownstone on Washington Square, the apartment block has no concierge. A couple of days later a policeman turns up at her flat. He tells her about a woman, a red head, murdered just across the road, her throat slashed, her body disarticulated. The killer has taken a souvenir, a trophy but he doesn’t specify what it is. Detective Malloy knows she was in the bar where the girl had been. He is brash, he makes no secret that he fancies her, he asks her to go for a drink:

“. . . Giving me a play. He was moving a little fast, but he’d put it right out there. He’d put it in my head. Or in my lap. Not that it wasn’t there already.”

Franny sees:

“a small tattoo inside his wrist. The three of spades. But no red head between his legs.”

Malloy and his partner Rodriguez are always around, Franny goes for that drink, she begins an intense sexual relationship with Malloy, then there is another victim, this time much closer to home. The relationship with Cornelius becomes tense and Malloy is scary, a chauvinist, a wolf-like character, a hunter but he is also a skilful lover. He makes Franny feel alive, she becomes obsessed, dreams of his touch when he’s not there.

We are drawn into the world of strange sex and violence. There’s a terrible reckoning coming and as readers we can feel that. The exploration of sexuality in the light of a sadistic killer on the loose is brave. In the Cut is a feminist novel exploring male violence perpetrated on women.

At one point Franny is walking home alone late at night she is attacked but manages to escape. It’s a telling scene, a woman should be able to walk home safely at any time of the night, Malloy tell her she shouldn’t do it but she is reckless. Franny wants to explore her sexuality but she loses sight of safe boundaries her spirit of rebellion leads her towards the dark side. In the Cut is a novel that understands that the best and worst of people aren’t necessarily poles apart and that they sometimes inhabit the same space inside us.

Paul Burke 5*

In the Cut by Susanna Moore
W&N 9781474613606 pbk Oct 2019