Final Cut by S. J.Watson

 ‘They tried to hide the truth. But the camera never lies…’

Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

So runs the publisher’s tagline on the front cover of S. J. Watson’s third novel.  It’s a problematic statement to say the least, especially since the development and mass popular use of high-tech digital photography and cinematography. Ease of use for the documentary film maker with an affordable camcorder and a point of view is not an equation for ‘truth’.

Final Cut does not explore the higher theoretical issues surrounding this knotty issue. It’s a generic fiction that builds its story more on the relationship – the troubled conflict – between recorded images on the one hand and the individual’s history, memory and identity on the other. ‘Alex’ (a self-chosen name}, the book’s narrator-protagonist, is a documentarist in her twenties. She has a vagrant, alienated past which furnished material for her first, award-winning film, Black Winter, featuring the harsh, vulnerable lives of street women. Depressed and discouraged by the relative failure of her follow-up work, Adam, Alive, she seeks, and gets (via Channel 4!) funding for a third project. 

It’s an odd one, albeit akin to a Mass Observation exercise. She will solicit personal testimonies of workaday life and experience, short amateur videos, from a given community, to be edited, or ‘curated’, by her (she does realise that with such an open call for submissions she will have to bat off a flurry of ‘dick pics’).  And her choice of place seems odder still, intriguingly prompted by an anonymous postcard. Blackwood Bay is a fishing village in decline on the North-east coast, in several ways typifying the economic and moral degeneration of civil society in the UK over the last forty years. Full attention is paid to the run-down, the neglected and the sordid. Inevitably, as an inquisitive intruder Alex meets remoteness, hostility and an atmosphere of morbid repression that suggests guilty secrets. Almost as foreseeably, she meets two men, Gavin and Bryan, who remain for her ambivalent attractions, each having a light and a dark side, throughout the novel.  The stage is set for a change of direction. As she interacts with the locals, Alex’s interest sways from a narrow concern with the film she is planning to mysteries she is committed to investigating. This is the anxious, driven heroine as PI-surrogate, needing to validate her own selfhood, secure her own reality.

A central reason for this sidebar that grows to become a principal motive is that the more she learns, the further she realises that in an obscure though pressing sense she herself is at the centre of the mystery. As those she meets and interviews become more responsive under her questioning, the interplay between the documentarist with a mission and the younger, pre-Alex street person form a background dialogue created by ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ sequences that separately recount past and present. As the picture clarifies, it reveals an early-adolescent culture of illicit drug and alcohol use and teen sex – not just the routine boozing, toking and screwing of bored youngsters found everywhere but strong indications that it is orchestrated and imposed by deviant adults. A moral issue arises and cannot be dismissed: the criminal exploitation of youth, the violation of innocence.

Which brings the reader to Blackwood Bay’s resident pariah and prime suspect, David. Here is the reclusive older man living alone, inviting disapproval by his ’different’ lifestyle, the guardian of secrets and target of hostile, speculative gossip. It is David’s isolation and reticence that make him the victim of a howling mob attack, reminding the narrator of ‘pitchfork’ scenes in movies and importantly underlining the bitter fact that communities exclude as well as include, threatening vigilante-style punishment for nonconformity. Alex resists the bigotry that demonises David, while feeling that he is central to her uncovering of hidden or suppressed truths.

The trail to a final revelation is long, very long, and entails the search for clues to the disappearance years before of teenage girls from Blackwood’s Bay, including one supposed a suicide or murder. It’s a complicated process, because each step that Alex takes towards a solution throws up queries about her and subverts the c.v. or imagined autobiography she has trained herself to believe. The image in her camera screen, wherever it points, becomes a mirror for self-discovery and device for tracing the clouded connection between Then and Now. It includes the shock that Blackwood’s Bay is not as unfamiliar, or as arbitrary a choice, as she had thought.

The dénouement, hectic and suspenseful, may not be fully plausible for some readers but it follows familiar generic conventions and delivers an ending that includes a diagnosis by Alex’s former mind doctor underlining and illuminating the traumatic conditions that she has survived and from which ‘dissociative fugue amnesia’ has protected her (at least one reviewer has compared this explanation to the shrink’s speech at the end of Psycho).  The final image is a floral act of atonement that frees her to accept herself and come to terms with an erratic history crucially impacted by others.      

On a personal note: as someone who led a disreputable life before fleeing to the groves of Academe, and who also can suffer dissociative fugue states if the ‘trigger’ is pressed, I found it easy to empathise with Alex’s conflicted ‘dual consciousness’, the Now and the Then. Furthermore, I am bloody deaf (I dislike ‘hearing-impaired’), and knowing that Watson worked as an audiologist I venture to hope he will include an affirmative portrait of a deaf character in his future fiction.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

S. J. Watson, Final Cut (Doubleday: Transworld, 2020). 978057523051, 401 pp., hardback.

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