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“Aina stands at the sink, drying dishes from lunch.” Hovering over this opening line, nothing is out of the ordinary. Except we do not know if she is alone, what lunch consisted of, what kind of dishes they are and how many, where the sink is, where she is, or what happened before. But we are introduced to Aina.
Aina’s creator, Tom Watson, now billed by Bloomsbury as a literary star of 2022, is a graduate of University of East Anglia (UEA) in creative writing, where he won the Curtis Brown Prize. He was shortlisted with this debut, Metronome, for the Bridport Prize, and with another piece, ‘Magda’, at the Bristol Short Story Prize.
Before reading, my mind is full of life on an island. I didn’t imagine it would start at a sink, but why not. Writer/adventurer Ben Fogle’s latest series ‘New Lives In the Wild’ has just featured one week of croft life with couple Jason and Helen. It was filmed on Yell, off the Isle of Skye, with its dramatic landscape and far-reaching vistas, similarly to ‘The Limits’ where Metronome is set. By comparison, this island and “Long Sky Croft” have no known location. The terminology suggests some Danish or Scandinavian connection; Viking-esque, given Aina’s surname Ollasson. Curiously, it was a Viking ship that drew Helen to her new life on Yell. Metronome’s main characters, Whitney and Aina, are islanders and crofters, for twelve years.
The book is deemed dystopian. Some elements from The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings and 1984 are certainly visible. George Orwell writes of the ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction’ and ‘to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.’ Metronome’s rough landscape is surely spooky enough without any added non-ideal, ill-ideal, dis-ease, un-ideal . . . Helen emphatically tells us that with croft life, “the weather tries to kill you . . . ”
So much is amiss, as is Whitney and Aina’s past life on ‘the mainland’. Not dismissing an element of brainwashing, one could argue whether they actually live on an island – after the discovery of ‘a spine.’ Watson writes of The Needles, which somehow conjure up views of The Isle of Wight but give visual perspective; he says of their formation, “church spires in a drowned valley” and where Aina describes a ‘flat sea.’
As for Anais Nin, she ‘could not live in any of the worlds offered to me – the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere (in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living)’.
Maybe this says something about Watson’s own life, why he was compelled to tell this particular story. Is it a protest of sorts, in which fictionalising “transports to other places and other lives” (Amanda Saint). If, as fellow writer Jamie D Stacey says: “stories are the vehicles through which we make sense of our emotions . . . ” then was Tom finding out what he was thinking? Does he like what’s going on in the world (at the time of writing Metronome it was the pandemic; at the time of writing this review, there is war in the Ukraine).
Ottessa Moshfegh deems that within good fiction, “you feel shaken, ‘woken up’, affected“ as a reader. Is Metronome that different to today’s reality? One could argue that the novel does not transport the reader as originally intended as these matters are happening on our doorstep. Watson creating this island life in metaphor, analogy, symbolism and imagery is all the more creepy if rooted in today’s reality. A message is being conveyed about injustice or perceived wrongs, with specific use of words like “malfeasance” and “miscreants.” Punishment for Whitney and Aina is isolation – and is it fast becoming an “island of lost souls”?
Metronome’s cover image shows something not too dissimilar to Hemingway’s iceberg theory: ‘Like an iceberg, the surface of the story, what is revealed to the reader, should be barely anything compared to what lies beneath.’ The iceberg and the island become intertwined here.
Perhaps idealistic images of ‘Castaway’, ‘The Beach’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’ came rushing before I’d read Metronome. We have two people, not one, and who have not been washed up on the shore. We do have a beach and we also have the permission for only ‘one personal possession’. Along the way we ask whether such a life is sustainable. We know the well-worn phrase that danger hides in beauty and beauty in danger. The sense of beauty of the island’s rugged landscape becomes lost with everyday living, time, and experience.
Interesting then that Watson’s proof title for the book was ‘Not All that Is Hidden is Lost’ referencing the Hemingway theory again, where hidden could be taken to mean the future and lost being loss in a physical and emotional way. We feel there are things we need to know, and things we really want to know. That all the hard work is done beneath the surface, yet we can only see what is above it.
Are the islands we have today real, in all that we know, all that we can process, and benefit from, and use to our advantage? Are islands a figment of our imagination, are we indeed our own island, within a physical island? Or conversely is “no man an island, entire of itself?” Or is it that “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (John Donne).
Survival on ‘The Limits’ is key, based on 8-hourly pills from a timed clock dispensary that inadvertently tether them both to the island, to each other, their quest for freedom, and what they do to achieve it. They have a different perspective of freedom – of course they do, otherwise there would be no story – highlighted in the interaction and attitudes of their characters. In the same way The Hunger Games’ Katniss has an idea to swallow poisonous berries to create an equality so there are no survivors, it shows not only her character but her lateral thinking and intelligence. In Metronome, determination exposes any flaws or attributes that Whitney and Aina (which means always) might have. Is the freedom for themselves or for someone else; do you give up your freedom for the sake of another? And if so, who?
I ask many questions because this is what the book demands. I might use repeated expressions because these are techniques Watson uses. For a novel depicting twelve years’ isolation for two people on an island, it can read like a veritable a-z of underlying themes such as: adversity, attraction, challenge, climate change, communication, companionship, construction, control, death, destruction, determination, distraction, distance, equality, existence, family, fear, health, human hunger, intimacy, lies, love, oppression, pleasure, pressure, rebellion, relationships, revenge, sacrifice, safety, scams, secrets, solitude, synchronicity, time, etc.
Brilliant imagery, magical symbolism, and use of objects throughout – from a favourite mug to a large sailing vessel – confirms how Tom pays incredible attention to detail of their life, within defined boundaries, but having to think outside the box. Some choices might not be theirs to make, but the themes are very current, whether dystopian or not.
‘Creepy’ has been used to describe Metronome already, as has ‘thrilling’ and ‘chilling’. I add ‘eerie’ to the mix. Beautifully in fact, as we are literally exposed to the elements, so cleverly crafted in this debut novel. We are treated to the geography of the island, the topography of ‘The Limits’ (aka ‘The Heights’) and its geology. There is trekking, hiking, mapping, swimming, sailing, boating, farming, crofting – down to cutting peat – to stimulate our senses. Metronome is at once a story of a path well-trodden and a road less travelled – literally. Watson appears well versed in these, setting the mood and tone on every page.
We ask of Metronome what hasn’t been said, whose story it is, and who is telling it. In every chapter, paragraph and sentence we are invited to ask how we feel, how Watson has made us feel. Whether its excitement, fear, trepidation, loss, disappointment . . . We feel it because that’s the way the characters feel at the time and Watson writes descriptions superbly, notably in his use of the elements.
Susan Sontag states, that “language can both create or distort a reality”. Katherine Mansfield also combines the senses and elements in her ‘Voices Of The Air’ poem using air, sound, sea, wind and music, ‘sighs’, ‘double notes’ and double basses, that appear in ‘rare’ moments. There is a storm in Metronome during my reading of it at roughly the same time as Dudley, Eunice and Franklin take hold. You can imagine the type of devastation on The Limits, after which everything is off kilter; is this dystopia meeting reality?
Writing consultant and ex publisher Andrew Wille champions a writing concept based on the use of elements, not only as physical external forces but tools that can equally be used to enhance writing itself. According to Wille, fire speeds things up for example, water slows things down; air gives focus and earth opens out. I wonder if they’ve met, as there’s evidence of this in Watson’s multi-layered work; ‘fat, cold drops’ for rain, and “waves come as murmurs.’ Using pace in his writing to describe wipers in the rain, Tom writes – “the wipers going faster, flapping down, bouncing back. One-two-three-whump. One-two-three.”
Echoes of a real-life metronome are in the telling – metronomic. Me-tro-nome, the use of it in musical terms (Aina is a pianist with a mathematical brain, cunning and in control of her own life) and in timekeeping. Ironically there are the same number of syllables in A-i-na as there are in Metronome and in Whi-t-ney. Everything is rhyme, rhythm, beat.
Art features heavily in the novel, sparked by the arrival of three Anthony Gormley sculptures at the UAE, which planted the seed in Watson’s mind, demonstrating a very organic and holistic process. In the way Gormley chose those precise positions and locations at the University – what does that tell us – Watson as a verbal artist, places his characters where he chooses. The connection to the sculptures is not obvious at first but once the connection is made, coupled with Whitney’s own artworks, it is explosive. I hope the sculptor himself has a copy of the book.
Whitney and Aina are both creative creatures in their own right. Watson concentrates on a small cast of characters, even in backstory, dystopian or not. The story is very well paced and easy to follow. References to the past shed light on the present, and for me, the past has made the present work very strongly. Any dots not joined at first just become more mysterious and add impetus and momentum to the story. When the tension attracts the mystery, the book becomes un-put-down-able, through its patterns and hints and red herrings, perfect in its use of double meanings. There are humanitarian touches along the way. Also power, strength, resilience, resistance. Mantras to go with them. Words and expressions so unfamiliar that you want to look them up in order to do the story even more justice.
Living off grid. Back to basics, bar a crackly walkie-talkie supposedly in working order. The sudden appearance of a token sheep also throws things off kilter where, as readers, we are left pondering its significance. It could tie in with Aina’s mantra Yan Tan Tethera (notice the word tether hidden there) with the Celtic method of counting sheep, and perhaps introduce the concept of a spirit animal. Administration, a Warden, Parole, the Bureaucracy that put the two of them there point us to the reasons why, implying they broke away from systems, rules, and regimes (one could either call them displaced, or criminals). And there is Max.
Wondering whether this is a hero story, how does one effectively define a hero – and can you be your own hero? Many assumptions have been made on the part of the reader, and to full effect – including the accuracy of the pill-dispensing clock, their trust in the pills doing their job, Aina’s watch telling the right time, keeping time, Whitney’s faith in the Warden who will offer them parole, and that certain supplies haven’t run out.
There is the significance of the number twelve, too, the years they serve on the island as punishment. Employing Aina’s analytical brain, it is ubiquitous, represents a dozen, is an unusually highly composite number, divisible by itself, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. It is also the number of sections on a clock face, months of the year, days of Christmas, apostles, stations of the cross, inches in a foot, face cards in a deck, signs of the zodiac, stages of the hero’s journey—twelve stations of the moon and sun, stages of life . . . it carries magical symbolism, and in terms of mythological and religious importance, it is said to represent perfection and entirety. Crucially in Metronome, it is central to timekeeping.
With Watson’s effective use of internal monologue, it becomes more memoir-like at times. I cannot help but think that the premise of this novel is metastatic where even feelings about feelings are involved. What matters most is that we are fully invested in Aina and Whitney and anything or anyone else that crosses their path. Aina’s observation of how the house feels at one point is expertly written; “time passes differently now, with more people in the room. The ceilings feel lower. The windows smaller.” And on her re-discovery of a hand-illustrated map, “the scale is all wrong, the distances too great.”
We choose with which character our sympathies lie. Watson’s early drip-feeding of clues leaves us initially doubting or wondering about their purpose, and whether we’ve missed anything. By the end of the book, I feel I would like to interview Aina. I would throw a few questions at her from Proust’s questionnaire; probably “what is your greatest regret”, “what is your motto” and “who are your heroes in real life”. Readers, you will get your answers.
The myriad facets and angles within Metronome and all its implications and deeper searches cannot possibly be ventured into in full here. As it is, with omniscience at play, Watson uses the idea of funnelling his information from the broadest possible view, zooming down to the specific minutiae – and out again. Do we look at Whitney and Aina as the same people at the end as they were at the beginning – and in their shoes, would we be, after 12 years? Have they served their sentence?
This book found me. What my proof copy didn’t tell me is that Metronome is featured in the next BBC2 ‘Between The Covers’ series. I’ll be watching because I do anyway and because it is an extraordinary book. I urge you to as well.
It is screenplay worthy. And if I were to put music to it myself, I’d commission Olafur Arnalds.
Metronome might well be a brave new world created by Tom Watson, as insightful and as premonitory as Orwell’s 1984.
Tom’s too, will stay with you long after you’ve put it down.