Cut (Affirm Press 2022) by Susan White is indeed a sharp and cutting drama set against the issues of sexism, misogyny and trauma that led to the #METOO movement. Set within a major city hospital surgical team, Cut may be a fictional novel but the characters very much speak the emotional truth of many women’s experiences of harassment, judgement, dodgy professional behaviour and assault that has flooded our media in the past few years. Parts are difficult to read, made all the more poignant because we know that somewhere, for someone, this has been their very real truth, their experience and their fight.
Set in a prestigious Melbourne teaching hospital, Carla is a young doctor with an ambition to be a skilled and compassionate consultant, and when a position becomes available, she must compete with her lover Toby for the job. The tension this creates between the two, and between their friends, makes for a page-turning read. Interspersed with this are the stories of Carla’s patients and medical cases, with each chapter headed with medical terminology that cleverly mimics or foreshadows the human drama that follows. Surgical care is time-sensitive and dependent on doctors to make quick and accurate decisions, often based on limited or incomplete information. Any mistake can literally be fatal. The professors and senior consultants in charge have little patience for younger doctors who hesitate or make an error, and even less patience for female doctors, who it seems must work twice as hard and three times as long (and also learn to play golf with the boys) before they are considered equal. In this intense, exhausting and high stakes environment, Carla must double-think her every move, gesture, comment (and choice of skirt), to ensure she doesn’t fall short.
But what rachets the tension up even further is that the book is divided into sections of Before, During and After, fragmented memories which are randomly distributed throughout the otherwise chronological timeline. It is clear early on that these refer to a particular event, an assault at a workplace dinner, that leaves Carla traumatised. As the novel develops, with Carla determined to gain the consultant position, while supporting other younger women suffering from workplace misogyny, attempting to keep her relationship with Toby going, and somehow managing to also have a personal and family life, the memories of that traumatic night return to her again and again, triggering her emotional state. She is mortified that she didn’t do more. Ashamed and embarrassed that it happened in the first place. Angry that someone put her in that position. Terrified that reporting it will jeopardise her work goals. The more time passes, the more rage-fuelled she becomes as she realises that it is not an isolated incident, but rather an invidious and toxic workplace culture that she – and all women – must fight.
Themes of power, misogyny, entitlement, narcissism, sexism, trauma and assault are explored through specific questions about surgical risks, generational attitudes, unconscious bias, boundaries between doctors and their patients and between the authority of professionals and the desires of those they treat. Author Susan White is a doctor and this novel is similar in style and tone to The Registrar by Neela Janakiramanan. An unflinching and honest account of a flawed system.