Cutlass Time by Jane Covernton
On the surface, Cutlass Time by Jane Covernton might fit into the category called ‘mid-life female literature’. Lizbeth Hawkins loses her lawyer husband when they plummet in their car over a cliff after failing to negotiate a turn on an icy mountain road. The loss of her husband Max disorients her; she is set adrift, like flotsam, at the mercy of emotional currents that carry her here and then there.
The novel opens with Lizbeth going to see a lawyer to find out what is in her husband’s will. She trips on a pothole in the gray pavement of a downtown Vancouver street and falls on her hands and knees. This ‘fall’ is symbolic of how Cutlass Time will unfold, for she immediately falls into reveries about the past. Indeed, one of the many strengths of this novel has to do with Covernton’s ability to travel back and forth through time without losing the reader; indeed, Lizbeth’s past, which begins to catch up with her shortly after her initial fall, could be seen as a parallel narrative.
On a walk along the seawall around Stanley Park, she thinks: “His skin was as my skin. Now I have no skin. His skin has been torn from me.” In many ways, Cutlass Time is about Lizbeth acquiring a new skin, one she will feel comfortable in, one that will allow her to endure the abrasions of life.
Although a successful music therapist and teacher, one who is on bereavement leave, she no longer knows what to do with her life. Her uncertainty becomes acutely palpable after discovering that her husband’s will has set her up for life, which magnifies her sense of guilt. Much of her grief-and-guilt work takes place while tending to her backyard garden where she tries to put things in order, as it were, although people and events constantly impinge on her. While recovering from her recent loss, as well as further losses soon to come down the pike, she mentally returns to Jamaica where, in the 1970s, she spent several idyllic months after ending her career with a semi-successful rock band.
Jamaica, despite its wrenching poverty, is paradise to her. In a myriad flashbacks that occur during the novel, we are filled in on an intimate relationship she had with Peter, a native to that island. She thinks of him often, “cutlass in hand, chopping coconuts, cutting grass, working hard at living,” while she composes music on the terrace of a rented house. The cutlass is both a weapon and a tool, a dangerous implement that cuts both ways—through past and present, through delusions and realities, and this is the work being done by our protagonist.
Over the course of the novel, Lizbeth’s desire to reunite with Peter and the past he now represents to her—when life, on the surface, seemed so much simpler—she fires off several letters in hopes of picking up her life where she has put it down over a decade before, all in a frantic attempt to acquire some purchase on life.
Without giving away the ending, or the many wrong turns she takes in order to find intimacy and a path through life, it’s fair to say that she finally decides upon a course of action.
I’m amazed Cutlass Time wasn’t picked up by a large publisher here in Canada. Had it been written by Alice Munro, it would be hailed as a masterpiece.