Rebecca Watson’s debut novel begins on a Friday morning in June, with our protagonist, who appears to live in the United Kingdom, waking late. The day is unwelcome. She is hung over, her previous day’s clothes strewn about the floor. She drags herself to the bathroom, showers, rushes to get ready, grabs an apricot on her way out the door. Heads to work (as an assistant in a newsroom), slogs through mindless tasks (watching the clock), zips out of the “dreaded” office as soon as six strikes, meets her boyfriend for a poetry reading, eats dinner, gulps beer, and returns to his place.
That’s it. That’s the plot. Sounds mundane, right? Not quite.
While the story line is simple, Watson’s style is experimental, and revelations about what horrors the unnamed main character has endured trickle, like droplets from a leaky faucet, until the pool of her trauma is made apparent. The writing is stream of consciousness and has the trappings of a narrative poem — lots of white space and italics, can’t recall seeing a period in the entirety of the novel — and melds the character’s exterior and interior worlds. An example:
“weight heavy on my eyes tight head
slipping in and out alarm stop! tapping phone
slipping in and out wish it was as liquid as it sounds slipping in and out
instead of this lurching this crawling back to sleep
crawling back through red to his face looming (inside my head).”
As she makes her way through the monotony of the day, this man with the looming face continually stalks her thoughts, and soon her physical space. He is, we soon gather, her boss, who increasingly seems to be something more sinister than a jerky superior.
And then there’s the scratching.
She wakes scratching. She retreats to the office toilets to tear into the backs of her knees (“I have to stop myself, I know I will stop myself so my body scratches faster, gets in more moves in less time, if you’re going to make me tear away so soon I better get my pound’s worth”). Her compulsion leaves her furious, “a small angry itching thing” covered in scabs, with dried skin and blood wedged under her nails.
I may be making this novel sound cheerless. That couldn’t be further from the truth. One benefit of spending 200-odd pages in one character’s head is that we get to savor her idiosyncrasies, stray thoughts and offhand insights. She calls her boyfriend “my him” and likes fruity Mentos. She’s funny and relatable. Like, for instance, when she is stuck on hold with a travel agent: “WHY is hold music designed It started out with a kiss / to anger people who are already How did it end up like this / angry!” Or when she’s unable, after multiple conversations, to recall a cordial colleague’s name: “her name beginning with R, likely Rachel although that doesn’t sound right, someone called her over once after she left my desk . . . and I remember thinking I MUST REMEMBER HER NAME but all that’s left now is the R.”
This protagonist withholds from others, but to the reader, she is an open, if addled, book. Much like the quiet triumph you might feel once you’ve convinced a closed-off person to unfurl, to get comfortable, to reveal intimacies, there’s a certain satisfaction to learning that she’s an aspiring writer, thinks about sex on the train and is wrestling with a consuming secret.
Granted, the style can occasionally grate on the nerves, especially when you encounter a page filled almost entirely with the word “pedalling” or several lines with just the word “glugging.”
But still — still — if you start this book, I suggest you soldier on. Despite the occasional overuse of repetition, the writing is economical. It’s a quick read. It takes a regular day and renders it irregularly, interestingly. It presents grief, violence, self-harm and self-doubt in an unusual fashion, driving home just how disorienting and destabilizing these forces can be. It is of the #MeToo era, tackling both catcallers and unrepentant predators, but exists on a plane all its own.
Yes, “Little Scratch” is a little messy, but isn’t life?
Nneka McGuire is a multiplatform editor at The Lily. Previously, she worked at the Chicago Tribune.
By Rebecca Watson
Doubleday. 224 pp. $23.95