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Metronome by Tom Watson Review - Delicate Hopes of Surviving | Entertainment

Metronome by Tom Watson Review - Delicate Hopes of Surviving | Entertainment
Metronome by Tom Watson Review - Delicate Hopes of Surviving | Entertainment

Review of Tom Watson's Metronome - Delicate Hopes of Surviving

Exiled to a remote island, a couple struggle to survive in this atmospheric dystopian debut.

Whitney and Aina are breaking the law by deciding to have a baby without getting official permission.  When their crime is discovered they are socially outcasts, condemned to 12 years of exile on a remote island in the north.  At Croft he must restrain himself to learn the art of survival in a hostile landscape.  They are aided in their effort with an annual decline in essential supplies, with the hope that after 12 years have passed, they may be allowed to return home.

Their punishment is made difficult by the fact that toxic spores from the melting permafrost have been released into the atmosphere;  Anyone who has spent time in that part of the world must take prophylactic pills at eight-hour intervals to survive.  These are delivered via an automatic "pill clock", activated by the thumb impression of the designated user, effectively tying the miscreants to their place of deportation.

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As Whitney and Aina near the end of their sentence, Whitney becomes more obsessed with the need to "prove her loyalty" in order to win parole.  On the contrary, Aina begins to suspect that this promise of freedom has always been bogus.  She is desperate to learn the fate of her son Max, and fears that her husband may keep this knowledge to himself.

From Sophie Mackintosh's Blue Ticket to Christina Dalcher's Vox and Joan Ramos's The Farm, the dystopia in which the state has taken control of women's bodies.  The influence of The Handmaid's Tale is clear, though new writers haven't always been as skilled as Margaret Atwood, weaving a believable future out of the stuff of now.

Watson's use of language is nuanced and sensitive, with landscape writing particularly a sensory highlight. 

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In his first novel, Tom Watson is less interested in the wider political and social reality of his world than in the mundane details of the characters' lives and the bleakness of the landscapes they inhabit, resulting in the emotional stalemate that exists between them.  The painful breakup of their past existence.  His use of language is nuanced and sensitive, with the landscape writing being particularly a sensory highlight.  His imagination of the island's sparse and chill beauty, together with the exiles' failed attempts to make a creative sense of both their fate and their surroundings, should be an engrossing and memorable reading experience.

But although the underlying mystery and sense of danger is enough to keep us engaged and turning the pages, the story eventually becomes dependent on deliberate withholding of information.  Just as Whitney and Mirror keep secrets from each other, Watson keeps secrets from us.  Cultural references – Giacometti, Copenhagen, Vikings – point to a world that is our identity, and a backdrop of rapid climate change suggests that the narrative is taking place in the near future.  There are vague mentions of dwindling resources of the population in distress and weather events.  Yet these paths remain unseen.  How well readers respond to this novel will depend on how prepared they are to tolerate the ambiguity that surrounds the facts.

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A similar lack of logic confuses the finer details of the novel.  Whitney and Aina and their former friends recount the time before the aggressive sanctions that have come to determine their lives and future, yet they remain curiously, almost certainly dormant.  No one talks about the past, not even in secret.  Whitney's obedience to the regime is particularly perplexing, especially in being completely unappreciated.  Once again, it seems that the author has relied on ambiguity to achieve effect;  Things are as they are, not for any real reason but "just because".

There will be readers who respond so strongly to Watson's transparent prose, to the ludicrous strangeness of his world, that they can put aside the trivial matter of cause and effect.  For this reader, at least, the enormity and abundance of plot holes and the relentlessly quick irrationals that govern the novel's final quarter blast any such necessary suspension of disbelief.  There's no doubting Watson's genius at the sentence level, but his lack of rigor around the core ideas left me frustrated and unconvinced.

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• Metronome is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Source: Nina Allan, The Guardian, Direct News 99