Rebecca Watson’s debut novel started life as a piece that was shortlisted for the White Review story prize in 2018; in it, we follow the narrator’s thoughts during her lunch break, as she ladles canteen soup into a takeaway cup, goes blank when a colleague asks her what she’s read recently and then repairs to the office loos to scratch – and try to stop herself scratching – the skin on her legs until they bleed and, eventually, scab over. Afterwards, she returns to her soup, and reads a corporate email about sexual harassment, which provokes a stream of thoughts and feelings that seem connected to the scratching.

The story was a glimpse into the two different systems of being that most people experience simultaneously most of the time: the scheduled, material, almost mechanical flow of time (here, a lunch break, a conversation, minutes spent at a desk); and the private, interior anarchy of emotion, sensation and semi-articulation that unfolds in each moment. It was rendered in daringly disrupted form: prose that fragmented into something more like poetry; sudden shifts in the typography; staccato repetitions and bracketed text; a narrative that appeared to split, like a peloton of cyclists separating to go either side of a roundabout, before reconfiguring, subtly altered.

Watson has now extended her story to run throughout a single day, from the moment the narrator wakes, groggy, mildly hungover, late for work, until the moment she surrenders herself to sleep. Nothing truly exceptional happens to her – she commutes into central London, waits out the hours at work and then meets her boyfriend for a Friday night out – and yet every moment feels filled with life and with jeopardy.

This is partly because of the story that Watson gives her protagonist, which is revealed in fits and starts, sometimes obliquely and at others with forceful directness. The narrator has recently been raped by her boss, a fact that appears to remain entirely private – certainly, she has not told her boyfriend, or the mum with whom she exchanges quick catch-up texts on the way to work. She imagines telling him as they sit drinking pints in a pub:

me softening, him softening, me not needing this, him not needing this, unable to still him how I used to but still, him softening, head tight my head tight tight tight tight why always this when I need it least, if I told him I was raped would he dismiss it? shrug his shoulders say good for you I know he would not be like that really really (and yet my head says he would) (well why don’t I try it then hey)

She is unable to speak for a variety of confused and confusing reasons: fear that he will not understand; an internal conflict between a self that seeks to mitigate what has happened to her (she hasn’t been killed, she wasn’t chained up in an underground room) and another that is loudly, angrily insistent on naming what has been done; a desire to keep the world as it was before, and herself in it, unharmed – not least so that she can preserve herself as a sexual being.

What is striking about Little Scratch is Watson’s ability to connect her character’s inner monologue with her physical existence; she is never less than fully embodied. Her mental meanderings and digressions never feel like abstract exercises in portraying thoughts or testing language. Moments of self-harm or appalled recognition of the trauma that the narrator is living through are refracted through the commonplace experiences of drinking water or walking up a flight of stairs; Watson neatly sketches the alienation from one’s environment that carries over into the body, occasionally making her appear to us like a figure in a game, navigating space, avoiding pitfalls, getting through to the next level.

Writing like this is often described as something that one should surrender to in order to properly appreciate, almost as if it were a kind of Magic Eye picture that will yield its real form if you allow yourself to de-focus. But while it’s true that rhythm, cadence and suggestion can be stifled by the rigid pursuit of literal meaning, experimental fiction demands the reader’s rigour and attention. (Put more prosaically, when a writer takes up most of a page by repeating the word “filling” because her character is, indeed, filling a water bottle, it can really speed up getting to the end of the book. But then you’d miss wondering, like me, whether it’s a sort of joke about filling a page.)

Experimentation aside – and it is not to everyone’s taste – Little Scratch is an extremely perceptive depiction of power and agency: in the modern workplace, where age-old and patriarchal hierarchies persist; in the modern world, where communication is truncated even when we have too much to say; and in the modern novel, where a character must find a way to name her own experience, even if only to herself.

· Little Scratch is published by Faber (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



Source link