The Cutting by Richard McHugh. Viking. 305pp. $32.99.
The title comes from a small area in Sydney's Bronte which separates the luxury home of billionaire Lance Alcocke from the ocean. But it also summarises what happens to Lance and many of the other characters in the story, a cutting that is sometimes literal, but more often descriptive of their fortunes.
Each chapter in the book is given the name of the character who is at that time meeting success or trouble. There is Will Fulbright, at university to study law because that is what top students at James Ruse High are expected to do if they do not like hospital blood. He is not impressed by the young females from his old school or from Knox or Kincoppal, whose lecture-room habits do not impress him.
So Will changes to engineering and finds himself six years later in a FIFO routine in the Pilbara in distant WA, where his boss is the Lance we met earlier. Unfortunately, the latter's experience of mining is not much better than his knowledge of high finance and he is at the mercy of Korean banks and con artists. The result is that he is closing his mine and explaining to the workers in polished phrases that it was unavoidable. Will is angry that the workers do not attack him at least by words, but preferably with their strong hands.
Will flies back to Sydney, business class as always, to his girlfriend Justine who is as near to a hero in this story as it is possible to imagine, at least until the final surprising twist. Much of Justine's time at university is taken up with advocating for a universal basic income, an opinion that meets with "a confounding degree of resistance" on campus. After uni, she finds herself heading up a not-for-profit body called Free All Refugee Children Inc, abbreviated to FARC!, that exclamation point intended to distinguish it from a Colombian guerrilla army.
The story involves Justine's attempts to coax funds from Lance for a visit to Nauru to deal with the child refugees there. Though a romance blossoms between the two, it is secondary to a problem with "the evil parasitic payday business" in which Lance is secretly involved and that will finally put an end to that hoped-for easing of the Australian treatment of child refugees. Towards the end, the author cheekily speculates whether, when she almost inevitably enters politics, Justine will join the Greens where she would be quite at home or Labor where actual progress would be more likely.
There are two reasons to recommend this book. The first is that it is a good story, set in modern Australia, with characters that are recognisable, credible and 21st century. But the second is just as significant: the writing is sharp and clever, the kind that will often have you tending to ignore the story as you are seduced by the sparkling prose. A brilliant treatment of modern Australia.
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