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Review: ‘I Will Crash’ by Rebecca Watson – Unique Take on Sibling Torment
Free-form approach … Rebecca Watson. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“I’ll crash the car. // He didn’t shout, which is how I knew he meant it …” The “he” in Rebecca Watson’s novel I Will Crash remains unnamed. He is an enigma, though we come to know him intimately. The narrator is Rosa; “he” is her older brother, who has recently perished in a car crash.

The news of her brother’s death is sudden and unsettling for Rosa, making it difficult for her to even tell her boyfriend, John, until the next morning. Yet, in a bizarre way, the tragic news feels familiar. For Rosa, it’s as though she is “being reminded of a memory,” one that settles over her like it has happened before.

Rosa had not seen her brother for six years. This detail is further complicated as we discover that he had come to her doorstep less than a month before his death. Rosa admits it was a peace offering. Instead of inviting him in, she shut the door in his face.

The novel poignantly explores alternative scenarios Rosa envisions, imagining how things might have unfolded differently if she had acted otherwise. The real moments, however, are starkly clear: “him at the door / saying no / then gone.” These moments are like “set bones,” unchangeable and a reality Rosa has to grapple with.

Rosa’s emotions about her brother’s death are violently conflicted. She is horrified by the instantaneous past her brother has become. Yet, she struggles to mourn his loss. The complex history between Rosa and her brother does not simply end with his death but continues to unfurl within her.

In her tumultuous childhood, marked by her parents’ failing marriage, Rosa felt victimized by her brother. He instilled fear in her, a torment unnoticed by others. “It wasn’t just the being hurt that I feared,” Rosa recalls, “it was the endlessness of it … and somehow it was destined to be my fault.”

As an adult, when Rosa tries to explain her feelings, the abuses by her brother seem petty and inconsequential—typical sibling rivalry. Both parents, despite their separation, dismiss Rosa’s grievances as childish, insisting that both siblings shared equal blame. They are particularly hesitant to discuss details regarding Rosa’s best friend, Alice.

Gaslighting ultimately proves as painful as her brother’s abuses. Deep family traumas are often difficult for outsiders to fully grasp, and we, as readers, remain uncertain. When Rosa finally meets Julia, her brother’s girlfriend, she sees a very different version of her tormentor.

Julia recounts a man deeply affected by his broken childhood, haunted by their mother’s absence—a pain Rosa didn’t share as closely bonded to their father. Julia suggests that his death might have been a suicide, casting a new light on Rosa’s perception of him. These divergent views underscore the complex and often irreconcilable nature of personal experiences.

Rebecca Watson’s debut novel Little Scratch delved into the elusiveness of the present tense. In her latest work, Watson employs similarly experimental techniques, embracing the past through word-patterning, font-switching, and poetic cadences. This creates a dense, intermingled narrative of spoken words and internalized thoughts, offering readers a unique view of the novel’s emotional spaces.

In a reflective moment, John talks about a paper he’s preparing on Gertrude Stein, noting how Stein’s partner said she “hated her own past.” This prompts thoughts about figures like Bob Dylan and James Baldwin, and the possibility of remaking oneself without traces of the past.

Rosa’s grieving is an act of compromise. The duality in Watson’s narrative highlights the intricacies of escaping one’s past. While deeply desired, such an escape is rarely clean, with families often defined by the tension between belonging and entrapment.

I Will Crash by Rebecca Watson is published by Faber (£14.99).

Source: The Guardian