little scratch by Rebecca Watson

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Review by Anna Hollingsworth

When a novel comes with praise like ”daringly experimental” and “dazzlingly original”, my eyebrow tends to go up. Really? “Original” sounds better on the blurb than “firmly embedded in literary tradition”, but the writing is rarely quite as dazzling as promised. I couldn’t help wondering whether the promised originality in Rebecca Watson’s little scratch would go beyond the title all in lower case. However, I’ve been happily proved wrong; my doubts were firmly misplaced, and I’m very much dazzled by this funny, harrowing rollercoaster of a debut.

little scratch follows an unnamed young woman through a Friday. On the surface, it is all very mundane: it tracks her motions from getting out of bed, commuting and texting to her boredom in the office, navigating toilet etiquette and the stresses of lunch in a communal space, to a poetry reading, pub visit and sex with her boyfriend.

But behind the mundanity lurk monsters. The narrator is constantly fighting the urge to scratch herself, and finds momentary relief when she gives in; we feel the scabs on her legs, the skin under her nails and the pleasure from digging in that turns into soreness tracing stinging red lines. She does her best to block out thoughts that she doesn’t want to think, but as the day unravels, they keep rising to the surface of her mind: raped by her boss, she is now forced to work at the very same desk where it happened.

The reader is made to feel these mental struggles all the more acutely thanks to the daring experimentality in form. The text rarely runs across the page and is instead scattered across the white space, and often flows in parallel columns of thought. It comes in fragments more often than in fully formed sentences. (In practical terms, this sadly makes the brilliant lines unquotable for review purposes.)

The form captures how the mind wanders and hops from one thought to another, and it embeds the narrator’s thoughts in physicality: her thoughts are broken up by bodily functions — peeing, drinking — and movements — walking, pedalling — that run alongside her internal monologue. This makes the writing feel more psychologically real than many more traditionally written streams of consciousness.

The experimental form doesn’t equal an unapproachable literary brick, however; this is no Finnegans Wake. Rather, a lot of the time it is a source of humour, highlighting the tension between internal monologue and external observations. The dialogues underline the duplicity in how we communicate and thing and are a pure joy to read.

In terms of content, little scratch is emotionally multi-layered. There is a wittiness to the everyday observations; one of the sharpest commentaries is a brilliant sequence featuring the countdown to the narrator’s lunch break at work and then the tactics of reserving a particular table in the one corner where colleagues can be avoided.  The same goes for her observations of fellow commuters; the narrator’s determination to find out where a man carrying a cuddly dog is headed is all too relatable.

At the same time, though, the novel is deeply harrowing in how it portrays the aftermath of rape. As the day goes on, the narrator struggles to suppress the memory of the event. This becomes particularly poignant when she meets her boyfriend in the evening, and the reunion she has waited for all day becomes muddied by the thoughts that are always forcing their way out from the subconscious. Now the contrast between what is said and what is thought takes on much darker tones as the narrator wants to open up about what happened to her but can’t, instead keeping up appearances. The dialogue becomes a haunting example of how shame forces victims to hide.
little scratch is like its title; like the need to scratch, it won’t leave the reader alone. However, the scabs and scars from reading it are very much worth it.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Rebecca Watson, little scratch (Faber, 2021). 978-0571356591, 240pp., paperback.

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