LITERARY FICTION

LITERARY FICTION

01/14/2021

LITERARY FICTION

LITTLE SCRATCH by Rebecca Watson (Faber £12.99, 224 pp)

LITTLE SCRATCH

by Rebecca Watson (Faber £12.99, 224 pp) 

Tell me I’m in the wrong job, but I sometimes wonder what’s so special about literary fiction — what can novels do that Netflix can’t?

Maybe that’s heretical talk in this column, but if such thoughts cross your mind, too, here’s an ingeniously experimental debut to remind us that the printed word remains a uniquely rich and flexible storytelling resource.

It follows a day in the life of an unnamed office junior, from bleary-eyed commute through to after-work pint, as the narrator’s thoughts obsessively circle a buried trauma.

The action unfolds via cut-up sentences dotted around the page, cleverly using typography to portray the to-and-fro of her body and mind.

Neither gimmicky nor difficult, the playful style enables a wittily sympathetic exploration of work, sex and the experience of being a young woman —and, indeed, of ‘being’, full stop. Alive to joy as well as pain, this is an intelligent, invigorating marvel, not to be missed.    

THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS 

by Richard Flanagan (Chatto £16.99, 304 pp) 

There’s no second-guessing Flanagan, best known for 2014’s Booker-winning Japanese PoW saga, The Narrow Road To The Deep North.

He never writes the same book twice: after 2017’s First Person, based on his experience of ghost-writing for a conman, he now serves up this peculiar tale of an architect, Anna, whose mother is dying in Tasmania.

Anna’s brothers expect her to manage the situation, along with her career and a delinquent son, but then her body parts start vanishing …

It’s a hint that Flanagan wants this to be something other than a straight study of grief and the stresses of end-of-life care. His breathless sentences convey internet-fuelled information overload — when Anna’s knee disappears, she immediately checks Twitter — while rampaging bush fires juxtapose the novel’s focus on individual mortality with looming ecological wipeout.

Yet, despite many searing passages, it feels less than the sum of its parts, oddly caught between realism and allegory. 

THE DEATH OF FRANCIS BACON by Max Porter (Faber £6.99, 80 pp)

THE DEATH OF FRANCIS BACON 

by Max Porter (Faber £6.99, 80 pp) 

Porter’s previous books conjured surprise bestsellers out of seemingly singular preoccupations. It’s a lesson for everyone — never prejudge readers — but even so, I sense his latest labour of love may leave fans cold.

An oblique tribute to the painter Francis Bacon, it unfolds as a tornado of voices swirling around his deathbed in a Madrid hospital in 1992.

Less a narrative than a mood, it doesn’t seek to fictionalise Bacon so much as to embody the smeary, scary spirit of his canvases. I doubt Porter could have published it before he made his name with the Booker-longlisted Lanny (being filmed by Rachel Weisz) and his miraculous debut, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, about a widowed Ted Hughes scholar visited by a talking crow. You didn’t need a prior relationship with Hughes’s poetry to enjoy that book.

This feels a more private affair, the unalloyed outgrowth of Porter’s avowed teenage obsession with Bacon’s art.

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