Book Review - Cut Out

In his later years, Henri Matisse cut out colourfully painted papers, and moulded them into exquisite artworks. The 2014 Tate Modern exhibition of his cut-outs included photographs and film footage of the master and his female assistants at work in his bedroom-studio in Hotel Regina, Nice. These photographs clearly inspired Michèle Roberts’ latest novel: an insightful portrait of an ordinary woman who aspires to break down class, religious and gender constraints and become an artist.

Cut Out is composed of two intertwined narratives: one set in early 1950s France, the other in present-day London. As a teenager, Clémence jumps at the chance to escape the dullness and frugality of post-war rural life by accompanying Camille, a pregnant Parisian model, to find the artist lover who has deserted her. The pair aim to follow him to Cannes, but their plans change when Camille goes into premature labour. She is rescued by a group of nuns who whisk her away to their Nice clinic. While Camille gives birth to a stillborn child, Clémence finds work as a maid at the Hotel Regina where her childhood friend Monique is Matisse’s night nurse.

In London, Denis, a gay man in his sixties, is grieving the death of his French-born mother, Berthe, when he hears from his godmother Clem. She asks him to visit her in a care home in La Ciotat, near Marseilles. When he arrives, he discovers Clem has harboured a terrible secret for most of her life. He must find it in his heart to forgive her. Denis learns a lesson about acceptance that is unexpectedly tested in Cut Out’s poignant final pages.

Roberts’ novel is painstakingly crafted, her vignettes resonate with the novel’s central themes and she makes us care about all her characters: apparently casual observations actually reveal a lot about their inner lives. The parallel narratives allow Roberts to contrast time and place – as Clémence endures the discomfort of second-class train travel, Denis is transported at high speed, in airconditioned cool, on Eurostar’s London to Paris service.

Roberts’ attention to detail is superb, whether she is describing a hand-cooked meal, a swim in the sea or two young women getting drunk for the first time and exploring how to kiss together. Roberts is interested in the complexities of human relationships and Cut Out is a tender exploration of friendship and love in its many forms. But her feminist concerns are also evident and she lays bare the gender inequities of the time. Roberts captures a world n the brink of change with a clear trajectory between Clémence’s desire to create art and Angela, partner of Denis’ best friend Phyllis, who is the modern-day equivalent: a successful film-maker.


Originally published by The Tablet