John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize 2020: little scratch

By Jean Huets

NBCC members: If you’d like to contribute a review of an eligible book for the 2020 Leonard Prize, write to NBCC board member Megan Labrise at Read the rest of the reviews here.

little scratch by Rebecca Watson (Doubleday)

A young woman scratches herself. She scratches furtively, in hidden places—behind her knees, inside her elbows. She isn’t itchy. She just needs to scratch. She needs to scratch until she bleeds.

The narrator is “I” and “me,” a young woman who works as an admin. Her boyfriend is “my him.” Her boss is “my boss,” her desk “the dreaded desk.” And there’s the “pre me … who was merry,” the “old me,” the “little, happy, past me,” the “me” who ended when her boss raped her on that desk.

little scratch is a day in “my” life, from waking up hungover, to soul-deadening office work with the same boss, to texting “my him,” to a poetry reading, to falling asleep that night. It takes a bit to get the hang of the unusual typographical form of the book, but once you do, you’ll find yourself flowing right into the narrator’s troubled skin and psyche.
Through her day, “me” suffers the all-too-familiar aggressions that ambush any young woman. But little scratch isn’t about how lousy life can be for young women. It’s about a young woman struggling with a trauma that has failed (so far) to impair her capacity for joy.

Her exploration of how the assault has rooted itself in her body and psyche is rigorous. But her wry introspection keeps us wondering: will she circle her experience without reaching its center, or is she zeroing in on it?

Fresh prose and an innovative form make little scratch one of those books that recall the pure joy of reading, whatever the topic. But what grabbed me in the end is that, despite the topic, Watson offers no moralizing, nor closure of redemption or despair. The narrator, and readers, are left in a hard-won place too personal to be prescribed.