The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss
The plot is linear. It follows Pearl, chronicling her mother’s death as a result of her sister’s birth, whom she nicknames “The Rat”. It’s a story of loss and acceptance; how Pearl processes what’s happened and gets past it. Furniss really gets inside Pearl’s head and delivers a poignant, tragic journey with humor sparingly-sprinkled throughout. The cathartic lead-up to the conclusion is somewhat clichéd though for the most part, it’s a worthwhile read.
I like Pearl as a character but at times, her narrative voice drilled holes into my head. I wanted to shake her. I recognize that she’s in pain but her hatred towards her sister, which is then turned onto her stepfather and his mother, dissolves into a drawn-out, me-against-the-world narrative. It pulled me out of the emotive world, that bubble of pain and grief, more so than the story world. I understand that Pearl is grieving but there’s only so much I can take before it’s pushed too far. Pearl’s switch between the before and after adds another layer to the story and shows a side to the characters that we might not have otherwise seen.
Some notes on character:
- When Pearl’s Mom looks at their soon-to-be house, she imagines polished floorboards, oriental rugs and their cat, Soot, perched by the fire, dreaming of mice. To which her husband retorts: “‘Dreaming of them? I bet the whole bloody space is invested with them.’” (31) It helps in developing not only character, but adds a touch of humor and dramatizes the setting in speech, allowing us to picture the state of the house;
- When Pearl clears a square in the condensation of the bus window with her fingers, it reminds me of when I did that as a child and teenager. It’s a universal action that makes Pearl feel more real and less fictional;
- Pearl asks her mother, when she discovers she’s pregnant, if she can have her leather jacket, remarking that she’ll be “too fat for it soon” (51);
- “Granny’s going on and on, telling me how concerned they are about me, and how Dad’s got enough to be worried about without me, and how they want to help, but they can’t if I won’t help myself, all interspersed with the whole ‘Here comes the little aeroplane’ bit with The Rat.” These moments, and there are many of them, are golden;
- She dubs her father’s wife the “Fish-Finger Burner”.
Pearl’s drinking experience, her running away from home, her behaviour at school and her treatment of her family are all natural, given her grief and with her mother still in her life, she finds it hard to process and accept her death. Her stepfather’s reaction is captured brilliantly and while you understand where Pearl is coming from, you can’t help but feel sorry for, and side with, him. The only downside with character is Finn. He feels a bit clichéd compared to the other characters and I’m unsure how necessary he is to the story. He’s a distraction in the story of grief that does not require a love interest and he kind of disappears towards the end.
Quality of Writing: 15/20
“The world may tip at any moment.” I love this line.
Furniss can, no doubt, write and write beautiful words that stick with you, long after you finish the story and sentences that will make you laugh but there are a couple of issues that take away from this.Pearl describes her neighbour as “the old dear next door” (34). This obscures the narrative voice as it sounds like something Pearl’s mother might say. Some of the word choices are a bit odd for a teenager, especially given the kind of teenager Pearl is being painted as, like “laden” (34).
Furniss dramatizes detail and blends it together with character, demonstrating the writing ability of a well-seasoned writer. The scene-setting is at its peak at Ravi’s house. Describing its contents, Pearl adds that it has a “Hello! magazine” (175) effect. It’s sharp and as well as establishing setting, it tells us more about Pearl’s character.
Comparative Literature: 6/10
Death seems to be an increasingly-popular topic in YA lit. Whether it’s suicide, as in Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why and Gayle Forman’s I Was Here or the death of another as in John Green’s Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, death is universal and the way in which these authors deal with death makes it accessible and appealing to readers.
Furniss has a strong plot, with none of the plot holes that TFIOS shares (seriously, what airline, or doctor, for that matter, authorize Hazel to fly when she’s TERMINAL?!) but at the same time, it doesn’t offer us anything terribly new. The mother as a lingering presence/spirit/ghost is a nice touch though not extraordinarily original. I do admire her portrayal though. It’s evident that she was flawed, and as a ghost, still is, though her love for her husband and daughters is clear. Jess Rothenberg’s The Catastrophic History of You and Me takes a unique perspective in telling the story, from the perspective of the girl who has died. Admittedly, the broken heart aspect is questionable but the premise is intriguing. Jay Asher offers a haunting story of a teenager’s suicide, told through a series of tapes. Furniss’ characters are fully-realized people though; people that resemble some that I know in my own life. Though my mother hasn’t died, I can relate to aspects of the story and empathize and engage with the characters. Where the love interest feels like a necessary element in Rothenberg’s narrative, it feels more like an appendix in The Year of the Rat.
NOW, to Skip to the GOOD BIT:
- A strong and humorous narrator
- A gripping story of death, acceptance and family
- Beautifully-written with funny laugh-out-loud observations and quip
- Characters that you can identify and engage with
Overall Score: 77/100
Books You May Also Like:
I Was Here by Gayle Forman – for a beautifully-written tale of friendship, secrets and loss. It chronicles Cody’s journey in discovering what drove her best friend, Meg, to commit suicide. Publishes January 2015
Looking for Alaska by John Green – Green’s debut offers a wildcard, chaotic character, Alaska and a story about love and guilt
The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg – if you want a twist on the death/dying theme and a love story, infused with humor and heartbreak