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I Will Crash by Rebecca Watson – family dynamics poisonously awry
Culture

I Will Crash by Rebecca Watson – family dynamics poisonously awry

Not to bang on about Granta’s latest once-a-decade list of best young British novelists – old news more than a year after its announcement – but where was Rebecca Watson? In the issue of the magazine that showcased the 20 under-40 writers chosen, she wasn’t even mentioned in an editorial introduction bravely sifting the many authors who nearly made the cut. Who knows – de gustibus and all that – but I reckon her typographically disruptive debut little scratch (2021) should have made it blindingly obvious that here was a one-of-a-kind storyteller gifted with a winningly refreshing mix of traits: unorthodox in form yet compulsively readable, playful and mischievous in spirit while seriously thoughtful in exploring her central theme of what trauma does to a mind and body.

I Will Crash, her second novel, is even better. Like little scratch, which followed an unnamed office worker who has been raped by her boss, it’s a tale of aftermath; the narrator, Rosa, a journalist who helps out three days a week with literacy provision at a school, is nearing 30 when she gets a call saying her estranged older brother has just fatally crashed his car. The news is tough, but not for the obvious reason: growing up, he physically and psychologically tormented Rosa in a years-long exercise of power that still defies articulation, not least for their mother, who continues to write it off as child’s play rather than bullying.

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Where Watson’s debut gave us a single day in its protagonist’s life, this book gives us five, from the Wednesday that Rosa first receives the news of her brother (never named) to the Sunday when she visits the grieving girlfriend whose existence she’s only just discovered. As in little scratch, snipped-up sentences skitter across the page, conveying the simultaneity of consciousness in a swirl of thoughts, conversations, texts and memories nested inside other memories. Rosa isn’t yet 10 when she learns that to play a game of Connect 4 with her brother is to tread on eggshells – better lose than risk his sulk – and before long he’s pinching her ankles, spitting in her eyes, putting raw bacon on her pillow, silently mouthing “fatso” after their mother’s second husband wonders whether, at 14, she should lose weight.

Darker deeds are glimpsed – part of the story turns on what happened when Rosa’s brother and a classmate got together – but what I Will Crash dramatises with horrible perfection is the enduring derangement of not being believed, even by yourself, in the wake of prolonged exposure to such intimate and sly hostility in the supposedly safe space of childhood. Rosa is fully aware that her ordeal is “not much of a story / more, a lingering sensation”; she knows, too, that even to recount it now is to risk bathos or indifference (“waving slices of bacon / in the face of death / never enough”). It doesn’t help her to remember that she once scarred her brother’s face with a lighter – a moment of pent-up retaliation whose consequences remain unforgivingly visible next to her own unseen hurt. Nor that, shortly before his death (a suicide, she suspects) he had turned up out of the blue at her door after six years incommunicado, only for Rosa to send him away.

The superlative economy of Watson’s narrative style – all those glancing fragments – lets her keep the action claustrophobically internal while ushering into view an impressively broad sweep of external miseries, from Rosa’s boyfriend’s own family trouble to the regrets of a random drinker encountered over a consolatory solo pint. There’s plenty of observational charm in Watson’s eye for, say, the wobbly mechanics of fixing a post-pub slice of toast, or the delicate etiquette of untangling your limbs from your partner’s while drifting off to sleep. But where little scratch was a novel about joy in the face of pain, this is a book inescapably about pain followed by more pain; shelve it with Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms as a decades-spanning family saga told in extraordinary microcosm, another chilling portrait of household dynamics gone poisonously awry and the nigh-on impossibility of redress.

The comfortless emotional acuity even extends to the title: Rosa’s words, I’d assumed, given that she’s the narrator. But it took me until the end to appreciate the force of what the opening pages imply – that the title is actually quoting her brother, which feels an almost evilly subtle detail, for Rosa’s words ultimately to find themselves bound and contained by his.

Source: theguardian.com