“Come for the humour” – Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson #GoldsmithsPrize2021

When it comes to my fiction, I’m honestly a little vanilla. Give me standard chapters and paragraphs and a story that moves in a lovely linear fashion, and you’ll probably have me happy. Experimental fiction scares me. As a writer myself, I often look at those writers who put their words on paper in a weird and daring way and wonder how the hell they do it. Does it just come straight to them or is it years of endless editing, restructuring to the nth degree? Either of those terrifies me. But my main problem with experimental fictions such as these is that, when it comes down to it, after all that work and all that effort, the methods of experimentation usually end up seeming like nothing more than a gimmick. A story that could’ve been told more efficiently without all the tricks and magic.

Every now and then, though, an experimental book comes along and slaps me in the face – dismissing my nonsense opinion with ease. The last one I remember was by Eimear McBride. A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing was a rambling, stream of consciousness, punctuation free thing that was off-putting to many but garnered praise from all over the place. The reason this book worked so well for me and was probably favourite from 2013 was simple – the experimentation fit the story and character, showing the protagonist’s struggles and desires not just through the narrative but also with the way the words were placed on the page.

If anything, with Little Scratch, Rebecca Watson does this even more effectively than Eimear McBride did. From page 1 onwards the unnamed protagonist’s thoughts and words are scattered all over the page, a paragraph on one side of the paper facing up to three words scrawled down the other side, a sudden all caps ‘ATTENTION’ in the middle of the page from nowhere, Trip Advisor reviews or cut outs of poetry mixed in with the increasing descriptions of panic and anxiety. In many ways, this is all the things I said I was terrified of at the start of this review. But from the very beginning it is evident that Watson’s scattered words are a representation of her protagonist’s scattered mind.

What makes this so successful here, for me at least, is that Watson creates a character I really want to get to know. She’s self-conscious, she’s paranoid, she doubts herself and everyone around her. But she’s also bloody funny. Whether wittily considering her ‘hangover poo’ or imagining calling a client on the other end of the phone a ‘CUNT’ she imbibes all her neurosis with a sense of humour. It is rare for a book this experimental, and one so focused on trauma, to be laugh out loud funny on so many occasions. If, like me, you fear the formally different – come here for the humour. It will more than drag you through.

It isn’t the humour that is the most important thing here, though. From early in the book it is clear that our protagonist is facing up to some significant struggles with anxiety and potential PTSD, but it is only slowly that we are fed some information about the true nature of what she is dealing with. Watson shows a true understanding of trauma in the way she shapes her narrative. Here is a character going through a pretty standard day; waking up with a hangover, going to the office, finishing work, and going to the pub before heading home to bed with her boyfriend. That is all that happens here. But in giving us such a specific window into the jumbled nature of her character’s mind the author represents how those of us fighting memories of a traumatic episode try to dampen down those thoughts, how that leads to us acting out in other ways, and how those thoughts cannot stay hidden forever.

Any Cop?: I am not sure how fair or appropriate my comparison to A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing is, but I do think I can back it up at least a little. Both deal heavily with trauma. Both see the importance of breaking up the difficult subject matter with some well timed and powerful humour. Both use their presentation to do as much of the work as their story. But another reason I think a comparison is valid is this; I find it hard to believe that Little Scratch won’t be met with similar piles of praise and prize nominations. For a book so formally experimental it is incredibly easy to read and difficult to put down.

 

Fran Slater

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