An enthralling debut that will have you turning one page after the other.
This morning, turning so that my eyes levelled with the bedside table, I saw two things: my phone flashing and spluttering away as the alarm went off, and Rebecca Watson’s novel Little Scratch. These first moments of awakening are captured by Watson in the first line of the novel: “I am traveling through, passing my own capillaries, red lines rushing by.” I decided my phone should have a longer lie-in than me and reached for Watson’s debut novel.
It is rare for me to feel any sense of solidarity on the toilet, especially first thing in the morning. But, like choosing book over phone, this morning was different. By the seventh page, both the protagonist (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) and I are on the toilet. She too had “the familiar feeling of a hangover poo”. However, I was not envious of her “7:40” alarm; mine was set at 11:30.
The novel follows the protagonist, a woman in her mid-twenties, throughout a day in her life and mind. The stream-of-consciousness style takes the reader from the moment her body begins to rise, to rushing on her commute to work in London, where she spends the day checking emails, avoiding colleagues and conversations, and Whatsapping her boyfriend (“my him”). They excitedly anticipate the end of the day – “it’s Friday!” – when they meet up at a bookshop for a mediocre poetry reading, before swiftly hitting up the pub next door. We leave her falling asleep with her boyfriend that night. However, there is an undercurrent of trauma pulsing like a migraine throughout the novel.
The title of the novel is indicative of the protagonist's unsettling habit of scratching herself until skin breaks and blood rises. Even in her sleep: “no! fucking dream tricking me into fucking scratching my own skin! fuck!” The cause of this distress is barely mentioned in the first third of the novel, as our protagonist attempts to block out the memory that causes such anger, anxiety, and emptiness. However, once at work, the ability to push it out of mind – and thus off the page – becomes increasingly difficult. The perpetrator of her distress metamorphoses from a spectre haunting her mind, to a physical presence in the workplace:
“haven’t seen boss yet today
he’s in the lift
I stumbled a little through the first page or two: the typesetting threw me into an initial stage of confusion by evoking the disorienting feeling experienced when one first wakes, to which you quickly adjust. Watson has her protagonist and reader preparing simultaneously for the day ahead. The pages of Little Scratch often have sections with two columns: the narrator’s stream of consciousness in one, and any physical action or conversation our unnamed protagonist engages in, which is minimal, in another.
Discourse around the novel often pigeonholes it as “experimental”. Watson recently expressed in an interview with Citizen Femme: “I find ‘experimental’ a frustrating label.” She argued that “any writer’s attempts are an experiment at first: who knows whether anything will work until it’s done and there on the page”. The architecture of Watson’s typesetting is an exciting literary manifestation of the mind, that only an MRI scan would surpass. This device brings us closer to the text, and thus to the protagonist’s psyche. The typesetting demands we pay closer attention to the text. You cannot skim read this novel; the experience of reading Little Scratch is more like ocular acrobatics. The velocity of the protagonist’s thoughts decelerates the reader. After adjusting to the disjunction, you will start to hear the noise of her consciousness. Watson has provided her protagonist with a listener, a set of ears without a mouth. You. All we can do is listen to her, responding only with our thoughts.
This is a novel which you will likely be compelled to read in a single sitting. It leaves your mind whirring like the terrifying final phase of your washing machine, until, like Watson’s protagonist, it steadies into a sleep. I’m sure many will and do go back to the opening pages to marvel at the journey Watson’s story has taken them on. The stylistic, rather poetic, structuring alone should qualify it for the Pritzker Prize, let alone for the Booker.
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