A THOUSAND CUTS is a book that sears. It takes place in the immediate aftermath of a shooting at a school in London, in which five people are killed. Thankfully, the book does not describe this horrible event any more than briefly: instead it is concerned with presenting the viewpoints of people who were affected: staff and students at the school and their families, both after and in the weeks preceding the catastrophe. Some of the plot is told from the point of view of Lucia, a police detective who is assigned to report on the aftermath of the massacre, and, in effect, sign it off for her superiors (and theirs) so that "normal business can be resumed".
Lucia gradually becomes aware that the perpetrator is someone who himself was subjected to hideous treatment by his pupils, and received not only no support from his fellow-teachers, but was ostracised and bullied by them, too. As she slowly uncovers the full extent of his misery, we are shown a parallel story: how much she herself is subjected to abuse by her own work colleagues, who are sexist, misogynistic and horrible. How will Lucia, who lives alone and seems to have no support network apart from an older lawyer who is more of an impersonal mentor than a friend, react to these pressures, so similar to those she is discovering at the school?
There are no easy answers or let-outs in this realistic novel: the perpetrator is not presented as a particularly sympathetic character himself, particularly concerning his treatment of his mentally challenged sister when both were children struggling to survive in a series of homes after the death of their parents. Gradually, Lucia is worn down both by her own environment and by the story she is uncovering. Increasingly coming under pressure to close the case, she finds another tragedy in the making, with connections to the first. She is faced with the realisation that if she does close the case, nothing will change.
The first half of A THOUSAND CUTS is truly nightmarish. I was awestruck by the talent of the author as he drew me totally into a world of pain via the witness statements of those affected by the crime, and his unsentimental insight into Lucia's life and thoughts, which I found exceedingly plausible. I am very glad I read it, but at the same time I wish I had not, as the suffering described is in some cases intolerable and in none of them easy to read about.
The second half of the novel is slightly less intense, but still bleak and horrific. The book is a short masterpiece, and one that everyone should read to experience what it can really be like when institutionalised bullying, violence and protectionism are allowed to continue unchecked. Chillingly realistic, this novel is a Lord of the Flies for a new generation.
(US title, A thousand cuts; UK title, Rupture)