In The Second Cut, Louise Welsh revisits the fantastically droll Rilke, as well as Glasgow, a city shaped by violent prejudices, sulky weather and recent lockdowns. The novel is filled to the brim with deadpan humor, mystery and the tragedy of monotony, and yet a precocious balance prevails.
The first thing that leaps off the page is the dialogue itself, which is witty, dynamic, tart, forceful and moving in equal measures. Above all, it helps propel the story forward. Every line that’s grumbled, barked or whispered reveals that much more about the characters, every silence and shared breath allows the murkiness of the morality they navigate to slip through.
The ability to preserve these true-to-life voices and absurdly comic exchanges, to give every person that ambles across the page a sense of purpose and direction, is surprisingly rare, and at once points to Welsh’s irrefutable talent.
Clearly no stranger to the power of an understatement, Welsh thickens the plot with overlapping trajectories, interests and competencies. The sheer number of moving pieces in the puzzle that is The Second Cut has the potential to overwhelm.
And yet Welsh never once stumbles, allowing no subplot to fizzle out and no character to be forgotten in the hive of the lifestyles she illustrates. A measured pace controls the slow leak of secrets and the unknotting of twists along the way. The horror these revelations inflict is also elevated by the inscrutability of the crimes themselves.
It’s the fact that the culprits look so much like us, both literally and figuratively, that causes the greatest discomfort. It’s the convoluted state of the human psyche on full display that betrays the normalcy of the reflections and actions that feed it.
On top of that, the novel doesn’t give in to the pull of the Scooby-Doo effect, the use of which would render the story’s ambiguous conclusion rather banal and forgettable. In keeping with the realism of its setting, the story accepts life’s limitations.
As a result, The Second Cut delivers an ending that is as satisfying as it is subdued. No explanation is blown out of proportion to stun the reader, no character is deformed by newfound attributes.
This demand for reasonable expectations is established early on, and in the most engrossing way possible. Against the backdrop of a somewhat gothic Glasgow, various clashes take place. As a gay man, Rilke has to navigate a world of fossilized prejudices that undermine his masculinity at every turn.
Even when done inadvertently, the connection between his “otherness” and his incapacity to exist as a respectable citizen is always there, laced into people’s perception of him.
By recalling the lawlessness and danger of having an LGBTQIA identity in the not-so-distant past, Welsh creates a compelling look at Glasgow’s shifting political climate. With doses of her signature humor, the author references gender politics, and how the relative acceptance of the diversity of life supplies a measure of freedom.
Still, it does so while widening the unbreachable rift between generations; both in terms of self-expression and general awareness. There’s an endless clash between youth and maturity, inexperience and life-weariness.
And yet, Welsh presents this variety of sentiments and tastes with an air of objectivity that electrifies. Overall, The Second Cut is a meaty, astonishing and delectable mystery that draws its ghoulishness from the most dependable source of all, the human condition.
Publication date: May 3, 2022 (Canongate)