Metronome by Tom Watson

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In this debut novel, Tom Watson has crafted a dystopian view of a country where government approval to be pregnant is mandated; and the penalty for childbirth without approval is exile.  This is the fate of Aina and Whitney – a twelve-year exile to what appears to be an island, isolation from the world and other people, and days measured out by the Pill Clock.

The Pill Clock is essential to their survival in the harsh terrain of the island as it dispenses the pills which they must take every eight hours.  There is only a small window of opportunity to access the pills and missing one would mean death within minutes.  Bracelets on their wrists pulse a few minutes before 6.00am, 2.00pm and 10.00pm to remind then to press their thumbs on the clock pad and thus receive their pills.  The structure of their daily routine is determined by the demands of the clock.  9.57pm.  The dial on the pill clock turns green.  He places his thumb on the sensor.  There is a whirr and a click and the mechanism dispenses a single pill in the collection drawer [14].

Aina and Whitney now live in a croft – the location of the island, the country from which they came and when the exile takes place are not made clear.  It could be anywhere at any time – and this uncertainty contributes to the disconnected other-world milieu of the novel.  When the story begins, Whitney and Aina are almost at the end of their exile – in a few days, they expect to be paroled and to return to their home.

As Whitney and Aina move towards the end of their exile, their isolated world begins to disintegrate around them.  A lone sheep wanders into their land; a violent storm brings flooding to the croft submerging the ground floor and the Pill Clock; and then Kessler and his eleven-year-old daughter Ruth turn up.  Each of these events shakes the foundations of what Aina has believed to be true – and more significantly leads her to doubt Whitney.  Ultimately, her eventual realisation that for twelve years she has believed something which is now shown to be false brings about an eruption of violence.  In short sharp sentences, the author creates a sense of horror at what has been done: Kessler tries to breathe.  Gurgling.  An airway punctured.  Blood bubbling.  Fear in his terrified eyes [209].  And then later: He slumps.  He cannot stand up.  He sits on the floor.  Eyes wide.  Blood fills the gash [277].

Tom Watson has crafted a novel which is replete with tension and barely expressed emotions.  The emotional and relationship consequences of exile and isolation on two people whose initial actions led to their exile for twelve years are brought to life through the sparse dialogue between Whitney and Aina where so much is left unsaid.  Aina’s growing understanding that Whitney has consistently misled her is brilliantly realised as is her subsequent sense of betrayal and disillusion.

The title of the book – Metronome ­– points to the underlying pulse of the story.  Throughout the novel, there are frequent references to the measurement of time whether it is through the clicking of a metronome [Clack-clack-clack; clack-clack-back]; or an ancient counting system once used by shepherds in Britain, yan tan tethera, methera pip, and now used by Aina when ‘her heart is in her ears’ [189]; or through the demands of the pill clock.

This is a novel which is chilling and powerful.  The ending is one which will stay with the reader for some time as Aina’s hope for parole and a return to her community simply bleeds away.

Tom Watson is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia where he was awarded the Curtis Brown Prize.  Metronome – his debut novel – has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.

Metronome

[2022]

by Tom Watson

Bloomsbury

ISBN 978 15266 3955 4

$29.99; 310pp

 

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