‘Little Scratch’ by Rebecca Watson, ‘Checkout 19’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

The Booker prize arguably Britain’s preeminent literary prize, well it was until at least 2013 when they changed the rules, removing the eligibility restrictions for writers of the Commonwealth, Ireland and South Africa and allowing any writer in English to win the award. When the Booker changed the rules other awards sprung up, for example the Folio Prize, the idea for the prize came into being when a group of British intellectuals “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking – they saw it leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction.”  

Whilst the Folio Prize arrived with much fanfare, after two years it was put on hold, a year later it was revived with halved prizemoney and amended rules to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry, prizemoney was increased again (to 75% of the 2014 sum) in 2019.

Also, in 2013 the Goldsmiths Prize was established, to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. Entry is limited to citizens and residents of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to novels published by presses based in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Whilst prizemoney (£10,000) is only a fraction of the prizes on offer for the Booker (£50,000) and the Rathbones Folio (£30,000) Prizes, it is an award where the riches of challenging or pertinent literature is on show.

The 2021 Goldsmiths Prize winner was ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner, a novel that opens with our protagonist, Sterling, being assailed by bullfighters, the matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.” This is a work that looks at people on the fringes, an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ was rightfully awarded the prize. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in one of the referenced paintings says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.

Reclamation is a theme that, to varying degrees, runs through three other titles that made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Compulsive picking or scratching of the skin is known as excoriation disorder and this is generally considered a mental disorder and can be associated with anxiety, depression or uncontrolled urges. Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’ is set over the course of a single day and follows a young woman living with the fallout of being sexually assaulted. Our protagonist is attempting to reclaim their life prior to being raped. When her anxiety is dialled up to TEN she scratches, just a little scratch.

The novel is written as though you are examining all of the thoughts inside of the protagonist’s head, it includes the monotony of simple tasks such as going to the toilet, drinking water, cycling, texting, reading emails, alongside making small talk with work colleagues and her partner, with the lurking monster of rape interrupting every so often. This is a visual as well as a rhythmic and scattered novel, almost akin to blank verse the page is peppered with blank spaces as her mind slows down or sped up and the page becomes cluttered, or split into columns to signify concurrent thoughts or interruptions.

This is an extremely effective approach, the overlapping of thoughts and the sense of being overwhelmed punching though the day to day mundane. In a recent interview Rebecca Watson says “With ‘little scratch’, the rhythm propels you on. You’re encouraged to read it fast, skipping across and down the page. The challenge is to inhabit the head of another person, and in present tense, you don’t have time to stop and start, to pause over a thought that has already been replaced by another.” It is a book that lends itself to reading in a single sitting or over the course of a single day. Innovative, fresh and extremely effective at relaying the trauma of sexual assault, I was captured from the opening page. A revelation.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel ‘Checkout 19’ also includes rape trauma:

‘Hello,’ I will say, in my voice more or less, and it will be Dale’s voice I hear back and Dale will say without preamble at all, ‘When you came back from Brighton last year I raped you didn’t I?’ And then there will be a pause and I’ll cagily move some letters around on the floor near the front door with the toes on my left foot and then I will look up at a dark cobweb in the coving and I’ll hear my voice say to Dale, ‘If you’re asking me did you have sex with me when I didn’t want you to then yes the answer’s yes Dale,’ and Dale will curse, Dale will say ‘fuck, fuck,’ and I’ll her him saying things about how I’d already been treated so abysmally and how angry that had made him and how he couldn’t bear it the way I’d been treated so badly by the most disgusting arrogant men and yet it turned out that he was worse, worse than all of them put together, and he’ll sound very emotional and I won’t feel emotional at all, I’ll feel embarrassed, and I’ll say ‘Perhaps I bring out the worst in men’ and I’ll be joking actually but then it will be a notion that occurs to me frequently and persuasively for the next fifteen years or so and Dale will tell me how awful he feels, how awful it’s been, and I’ll say, I’ll say to poor Dale, ‘Look Dale don’t dwell on it, I don’t, I hardly ever think of it – I think it’s OK,’ and he won’t say anything and I’ve wondered since if somewhere in him he hated me for saying that because if he had behaved worse than those men he had castigated and tried to keep me away from, if he had done the worst possible thing yet still hadn’t managed to get under my skin, what did that mean, what on earth did that mean exactly. I hadn’t so much absolved him as obliterated him. I should have cried perhaps. I ought to have cried really.

The content, style, approach opposite to Rebecca Watson’s. Long winding sentences, auto-fiction but possibly simply fiction that switches tenses, that is speculative (the phone call and discussion above could well be imagined as it is a response to a phone ringing that nobody else in the shared house had answered). ‘Checkout 19’ is a detailed examination of a reader and writer’s life, memories of the books read, one at a time, the events that happened whilst reading those books, memories of clothes picked up in Op shops, along with books, the writing of stories, and rewriting (do the original writings exist?), the novel is a blur inside somebody else’s head. If I was to attempt a definition of the main narrative, it is a writer revisiting her memories to make sense of her identity. However she’s an unreliable narrator, the narratives become sub narratives which become the narrative which loops off into a different sub narrative. Similar to ‘little scratch’ in that we are inside an unnamed protagonist’s head, this work is more complex, cluttered. A collection of memories that may be linked, if only because they happened to one person.

Deeply indebted to a raft of classic novels, where Claire-Louise Bennett may deftly refer or deeply imagine, for example our protagonist reads E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room With A View’, travels to Italy and stands on the banks of the River Arno, other references are fleeting:

I had not yet read but have done since the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz and though I had red many novels by Milan Kundera I had not yet read his gallant essays in Testaments Betrayed which I read with a great deal of pleasure some years later and which might have put me on to Gombrowicz, as well as Calvino perhaps, and definitely Fernando Pessoa. I had not read any Hofmannsthal or Handke, or Goethe, or Robert Walser. I had read Death in Venice. One of the first serious works I read was The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and I got that from the library and it was a very big book and I read it during that week or so when my bedroom was being painted and I slept in the spare room on a sofa bed. I really liked sleeping on the sofa bed even though I found it more difficult to get up in the morning when I slept in it, probably because of it being so low down, and I preferred that room to my own, even though ti was much smaller. I’ve always preferred to go to sleep in a small room.

And off goes the sub narrative about room size! A novel where our protagonist is searching for her identity, where there are no conclusions, just statements and linkages, a looping innovative work, one that kept me entranced throughout.

A third work from the shortlist that also explores identity is the short novella ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown. Here we have another unnamed narrator, a black female mid tier employee at a large financial services company.

She often sat in the end cubicle of the ladies’ room and stared at the door. She’d sit for an entire lunch break, sometimes, waiting either to shit or to cry or to muster enough resolve to go back to her desk.

He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild, her skin (exotic), he blouse (barely containing those breasts).

Over the phone, he instructed her to do little things. This humiliated her more than the bigger things that eventually followed, Still, she held her stapler up high as directed. Drank her entire glass of water in one go. Spat out her chewing gum into her hand.

A similar scenario to Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’, here the boss also sexually harasses “He was getting up from his chair, walking towards her, brushing against her though the office was large and he had plenty of space.” And here we are, again, inside the protagonist’s head, this character having the added burden of systemic racism.

New York Sunday night, London Saturday morning. You fly the round trip regularly for work. But the attendant stops you. At Heathrow, Sunday afternoon, the attendant lunges into your path before you can reach the business desk. Places a firm hand against your upper arm. The attendant’s fingers – who knows what else they’ve touched? – now press into the soft, grey wool of your coat. You look down at this hand on your body; at the flecks of dirt beneath its fingernails, the pale hairs sprouting from its clammy skin. And then its owner, the attendant, points and speaks loudly, as though you don’t understand, says: Regular check-in is over there.
The attendant won’t acknowledge your ticket, no, just waves you over to the long queue. It winds back and forth, penned in between ropes, all the way to the regular check-in-desk. The attendant says: Yes, there’s your line, over there.

Our protagonist here has received a promotion, has recently seen a specialist about cancer and is heading to the country estate of her (white colonial) boyfriend’s family for a weekend of celebration for his parent’s wedding anniversary. Although prosperous, an owner of a small property and recently promoted she comes to a realisation that she is complicit in the ongoing capitalist façade. As the preparations for her weekend away move closer, the flashbacks, questioning and urge for understanding becomes more pressing.

But to carry on, now that I have a choice, is to choose complicity.

Containing biting parallels between black and white, privilege and working class this is an urgent work that confronts the racist divide head on;

Per bell hooks; We must engage decolonization as a critical practice if we are to have meaningful chances of survival . . . yes, yes! But I don’t know how. How do we examine the legacy of colonization when the basic facts of its construction are disputed in the minds of its beneficiaries? Even that which wasn’t burnt in the 60’s – by British officials during the government-sanctioned frenzy of mass document destruction. Operation Legacy, to spare the Queen embarrassment. The more insidious act, though less sensational, proved to have the greatest impact: a deliberate exclusion and obfuscation within the country’s national curriculum. Through this, more than records were destroyed. The erasure itself was erased.

Another important novel, amongst at least four from the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Booker may be still awarding prizes to stories of “diminished families and troubled lands” the Goldsmiths is reflecting current thinking addressing “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”

Note – I reviewed these in the order I read them, there is no preference for any book, they are each wonderful examples of what fiction can do.

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