‘Cut Away’ by Catherine Kirkwood
Author: Courtney Gillette
October 7, 2010
A tight and moody novella by debut author Catherine Kirkwood, Cut Away is a satisfying slice of dark fiction. When teenage Olivia disappears into the California desert, three unrelated women become ensnared in the mystery. Yet, anyone expecting a linear tale of someone lost and found need not look here.
Told in alternating chapters by three narrators, Olivia fades into the background of the novel as the characters’ lives, wants, and lies become intimately tangled.
There is Eleanor, the successful yet dissatisfied plastic surgeon; Alexandra, a stunning trans woman with the strongest sense of self among all the women we meet; and Asa, Olivia’s mother, her eerie story devoid of beauty and muddled with failure.
What could become a clumsy plot overlap is seamless in Kirkwood’s hands—the book’s multiple narrators deepening the tension of the novel. Scenes replayed through new eyes remain fresh instead of looking redundant. Kirkwood has a command of the craft of fiction that is arresting. Each character’s meditations, interactions, and motives are as precisely executed as Eleanor’s careful cosmetic surgeries.
Truth, surface, identity, and construction are richly built upon as the characters’ tales unfold. The most compelling is Alexandra, who has several opportunities in the story to defend her identity as something she owns—not something others see, or something that surgery could complete. She is the one character who all others are attracted to, unknowingly. She briefly befriends Olivia before Olivia disappears; becomes a fixture at Eleanor’s incredible yet incomplete desert home; and crosses paths with the broken Asa, who masquerades as a make-up saleswoman in an attempt to get closer to Eleanor—to transformation, to some answer to questions she can barely pronounce.
“It always surprises me,” Alexandra notes, “how other people live. Not that they never have to think about their own gender, but that they never think of gender as anything but fixed. Eleanor sees me as not yet fixed. Amorphous. The outline of me is never out of the viewfinder, always in the crosshairs. Imagined and re-imagined, my image shifts inside her mind. I suspect this is why she is drawn to me.”
How refreshing it is to have a trans/genderqueer character who is solid in their identity and boldly addresses how others tactlessly want to change them.
Of all the characters’ various desires and searches, Alexandra remains the most in tune with herself. It is Olivia who brings them together, but Alexandra who lets them go.
What could continue on for pages—meditations upon identity, especially in Alexandra’s voice, evocative of the desert around her, the tension between city and arid land, possession and deprivation—actually finds an appropriate and original end.
And it wouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you that Olivia remains missing—her disappearance now just a catalyst for the collision of these three paths. The book begins with an epigraph from Jeanette Winterson, which sets the tone for Kirkwood’s precise language, erotic and transfixing mood, and characters who reveal themselves just enough without breaking any of the mystery that lies taut across this satisfying novella.
by Catherine Kirkwood
Arktoi/Red Hen Press