Publisher: Simon & Schuster.
Hardcover, 320 pages.
Release date: April 24th 2014.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
I always thought you'd know, somehow, if something terrible was going to happen. I thought you'd sense it, like when the air goes damp and heavy before a storm and you know you'd better hide yourself away somewhere safe until it all blows over.
But it turns out it's not like that at all. There's no scary music playing in the background like in films. No warning signs. Not even a lonely magpie. One for sorrow, Mum used to say. Quick, look for another.
The world can tip at any moment … a fact that fifteen-year-old Pearl is all too aware of when her mum dies after giving birth to her baby sister. Told across the year following her mother's death, Pearl's story is full of bittersweet humour and heartbreaking honesty about how you deal with grief that cuts you to the bone, as she tries not only to come to terms with losing her mum, but also the fact that her sister - The Rat - is a constant reminder of why her mum is no longer around…
The Year of the Rat is a book I never expected to land in my review pile – but now it has, I’m so glad I took the time to read and enjoy it.
The world gives and the world takes away. Fifteen-year-old Pearl thought she understood this. After all, she’s never known her real dad, but she’s got a great stepdad instead. Somehow, though, losing a mother and gaining a wrinkly little rat sister is an equation that just doesn’t seem to add up.
This is not an easy read. It’s emotional and unexpectedly brutal. Pearl’s grief is very real and being inside her head is a tough place to be – but the author knows her inside out and short, time-lapse chapters keep the pages turning. Full of heartbreak and desolation, it’s at the very forefront of UKYA in 2014.
After the loss of her mother, Pearl is devastated and furious and lost all at the same time. She doesn’t know what to feel, and she needs someone to blame. Baby sister Rose is the perfect candidate. Pearl can see Rose taking up more and more space in her stepdad’s heart – and she’s pushing Pearl out. Bitter and angry, Pearl starts to rebel.
Pearl shuns many of her loved ones over the course of this book, but they are still incredibly present. Her stepdad is devoted but inconsolable. To him, Rose is a reminder of his late wife, and he clings to her in the same way that this tiny baby is clinging to life. He tries to reach out to Pearl but when it appears that he is the last thing Pearl wants, he puts all his energy into willing Rose to survive. Pearl’s best friend also makes an appearance, but with her new boyfriend Ravi providing far more entertaining conversation than unhappy, misanthropic Pearl, even she gives up after a while. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the huge role played by Pearl’s mother herself, and not just as a symbol or a memory. Pearl’s connection with her lost mother is open to interpretation, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the forlorn vestiges of their relationship.
As she becomes more and more distant from the people she knew 'before', Pearl seeks out new sources of attention - her biological father in particular. In a style similar to Morgan's road-trip to find her father in Janet Gurtler's 16 Things I Thought Were True, Pearl sets out a journey to find a new version of herself, wondering if maybe her real dad will be able to fill the gap that's tearing her apart from the inside out. Like many teenagers, Pearl wants an escape from the harsh realities of life – and hers is tougher than most.
Pearl's new way of thinking is underlined by the idea that if everyone’s going to die anyway, what’s the point? She misbehaves at school and she lashes out at others - even people like Finn, the wonderful boy next door character who tries to show her that the world can still be a wonderful place even after you’ve suffered loss so close to home. I would have liked to have seen more of Finn, actually, but this is a book about survival, not romance, and that’s made clear from the beginning.
There’s only one reason I’m not giving this book five stars, and that’s the simple fact that Pearl’s behaviour is at some points so appalling it alienates the reader from the story. There is one particular moment where she can’t cope with looking after newborn Rose for a couple of hours and her response is just inexcusable. She has a mean streak that can’t be excused by the fact that she's reverted to a recklessly childlike state in the wake of her mother’s death.
It’s important to note that The Year of the Rat isn’t all misery, though. It’s heart-wrenchingly funny as well as extraordinarily bittersweet. My favourite character, without doubt, was Verity. She made me laugh so much more than I expected. There are unexpected and astonishing moments of joy to be found in these pages, and they make the book well worth reading.
In short: raw and honest, this heart-breaking tale of loss and anger is one of the most unique and compelling novels I’ve read so far this year.