The average person experiences more than 6,000 individual thoughts per day: exhausting to consider, let alone write about. Fiction can distil these moments, organise the messiness of the human mind, evoke empathy. And yet empathy — or at least pity — is what the unnamed narrator of this astonishing debut fears, as she wrestles with a hidden trauma and how to disclose it — not only to those around her but more importantly to herself.

Rebecca Watson’s little scratch began life as an entry for The White Review’s short story competition in 2018. Since then, Watson (who is the FT’s assistant arts editor) has expanded the material, building it into a novel that feels voyeuristically close, as the narrator shares WhatsApp messages, images, questions, fantasies and flashbacks that chart morning turning to night across a single day.

The “stream” in stream-of-consciousness suggests small rivulets of perceptions and impressions in real time. Inherent to this approach is the difficulty of ensuring readers take as much notice of the significant thoughts as the transitory or less important ones, at least in terms of plot. In little scratch, the events unfold in fragments mirrored in the typography of each page, which is mostly split into two or three columns. It sounds like a tiring read, but the rhythm is engaging and the voice instantly recognisable.

The little scratches of the title are both literal — the secret of the narrator’s trauma made manifest through compulsive scratching of her skin — but figurative too. She wakes up hungover, pushing unwanted memories firmly away, “no more thinking about that now”. She scrambles into clothes, on to the London Overground, through the office’s swing doors; she contemplates soup in the canteen, performs mundane tasks, cycles to meet her boyfriend, has a pint. It’s a constant cycle of “awake! remembering, sleep, wake!” Her pain, though, is private: “look at me”, she observes, “being an ordinary person”.

A large part of the story takes place in the office, and while this microcosmic world of logging on and showing up was contemporary at the time of writing, it feels somewhat dated after the unusual year that was 2020. The narrator steels herself against the entrance, “past lifts, down into the dreaded corridor / through dreaded swing doors, past dreaded toilet, kitchen on dreaded left, dreaded desk, dreaded desk” while the right-hand column descends, one word at a time: “why / am / I / here”. Except to the reader, she is largely silent, staring at a poster discouraging workplace bullying while senior colleagues provide a braying soundtrack, “ha ha they say ha ha”.

The protagonist’s boyfriend, and to a lesser extent her mother, appear cameo-like from time to time, but their obliviousness to her trauma render them superficial, deliberately so it seems: “I love him, but what I love more, right now, is a duvet over my head”, she thinks, “pretending for ease”. There is little they can do to help, and this sense of isolation reinforces the vicious, prison-like circle of her groundhog days.

Ancillary figures, like a man selling caramel nuts, intrude “to show his presence when I was finally for a moment not present anywhere . . . needing me to notice, to be interrupted, to give the attention I was so set on giving elsewhere”. These instances provide wider, though nuanced, context, on the toll that such interactions — the smiles, nods, unsolicited comments — take on daily life, particularly that of a woman, and how hard this can be to articulate to someone who hasn’t experienced them.

Many books dealing with a subject as serious as Watson’s hold their readers firmly within an atmosphere of pain, but here, the instances of playful rage, frustration and knowing cynicism neatly reveal that horror and humour need not be mutually exclusive. There is power in the narrator’s vulnerability, in her multitudes colliding, in the casual digressions, in the joy she finds through simple things — mint tea, cycling home in the dark, chips dipped in gravy, having sex.

Much like Michaela Coel’s TV drama I May Destroy You, this novel’s climax comes through the narrator’s own acknowledgment of her terrible trauma and what it means, rather than through neat divulgence or justice-seeking. It was rare until recently to find female characters who recognise their suffering without letting it define them. The unsayable becomes sayable — and for this book, this narrator, that may for now be enough.

little scratch, by Rebecca Watson, Faber & Faber, RRP£12.99, 202 pages

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