Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss (YA)

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Paperback review by Annabel

This debut novel was one of the big YA hits in the UK last year and is now out in paperback. An exploration of family, friendship and grief, it takes a particularly tough scenario and handles it really well with humour and sympathy as we follow a year in the life of teenager Pearl.

The novel is narrated by Pearl, and it starts at her Mum’s funeral. Within pages we learn that she died in childbirth but the baby, who was premature, survived. Pearl’s Dad is put into a near impossible situation – having to direct all his attention to Rose, the baby and spend most of his time in the Neo-Natal unit at the hospital. It’s no surprise that Pearl hates the baby which helped kill her mother and, likening its wrinkled red skin to new-born furless kittens, she christens it ‘The Rat’.  Pearl goes through her mother’s old photos:

The last picture is of Mum lying in a hospital bed, looking young and exhausted, holding me, all new and crumpled. Not like The Rat though. I look like a real baby. I think of The Rat in her funny plastic box with the tubes going in and out of her. Is she still in it? Does she still look the same? I examine the photo carefully. Dad wasn’t there; he and Mum had been friends since before I was born, but they didn’t get together until a few months later. My real father hadn’t been there either. He and Mum had split up before I was even born. I think of how Dad looked at The Rat when we first saw her and I wish suddenly that someone had been there to look at me like that.

This paragraph from page 47 explains their situation further. Pearl has even more cause to be jealous of The Rat, for The Rat’s Dad is not her real Dad.

Pearl and her Dad struggle through the next months. Pearl is on auto-pilot through her GCSEs. Her best friend Molly tries to help, but Pearl won’t let her in and, once she finds out that Molly is going out with geeky Ravi, she shuns her further. Pearl spirals into depression, retreating to her room, not contacting her friends, becoming sullen and angry.

Of course there is a day when the baby comes home and Pearl has to cope with being in the same house and even being asked to look after her. Will she cope? Will she ever be able to call the baby by her name, Rose, and not The Rat? How will her Dad cope too?

Through all this trauma, Pearl talks to her Mum. Whether her Mum is a figment of her imagination or a true ghost is not important, she’s still there to Pearl – at least sometimes, usually when least expected, and never when Pearl is desperately looking for her.

A chance meeting with the grandson of her neighbour is the catalyst for jolting Pearl into action. Finn is a classic boy next-door figure and they don’t hit it off at first. Also Pearl has to sort out her father. Which one? I hear you ask… well that would be telling!

You can’t help but feel for Pearl, it’s no wonder that she clings to her Mum who was taken from her so suddenly. I felt even more in a way for her Dad who, as Pearl is narrating, gets a rather short measure, but we can still sense his grief and pain. The moment close to the start of the book where they return home from the hospital to see the chocolate cake her Mum had baked still sitting on the table made me well up with tears:

And it was like something collapsed inside Dad. I could see it: sudden, but in slow motion, unstoppable, like an avalanche. He made this weird noise – a sob or a shout, scared and angry. Then he picked up the cake and threw it at the wall. Thick dark gobbets splattered and oozed and slid slowly down the wall.

Pearl then reacting badly to him destroying the last thing her Mum made doesn’t help at all.  It is all achingly real and very moving indeed. It’s very sad, yet you sense that from the start that they will all make a new beginning by the end of the year – yes, it is ultimately a life-affirming read.

The paperback contains extras including a list of the author’s favourite life-affirming reads, interview, reading group questions, plus a short story about one of the important side-characters, Finn’s gran, Dulcie, which was sweet. As an adult, I really enjoyed it a lot; your teenaged daughters will love it.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors and coincidentally, was born in the Year of the Rat – but that’s another story.

Claire Furniss, The Year of the Rat (Simon & Shuster, London, 2014) paperback 2015, 352 pages.

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