Life, loss and love
By turns poignant, heartbreaking and funny, this is a powerful novel that will touch readers of all ages.
“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.”
And so begins a difficult year for Pearl, the protagonist in author Claire Furniss’s debut young adult (YA) fiction novel, The Year Of The Rat.
The novel opens on a rainy winter’s day in March, and Furniss does not waste any time in informing her readers that Pearl and her dad are in church attending her mother’s funeral.
In a flashback scene, read- ers learn that Pearl’s mother, Stella, died while giving birth to Pearl’s sister, Rose – who Pearl refers to throughout the novel as the titular Rat.
Unsurprisingly, 16-year-old Pearl becomes withdrawn after the funeral, keeping to herself, becoming indifferent about school; she even practically stops talking to best friend Molly. Of course, it doesn’t help that Molly gets herself a boyfriend, Ravi, and naturally begins spending more time with him rather than Pearl. Perversely, even though Pearl doesn’t want to interact with Molly, this still makes her angry. Basically, she is an angry young woman at this point in her life.
The poignant and revealing parts of the novel are when Pearl has discussions with her mother – who might be dead but still manages to be around Pearl quite a lot, but only when no one else is there. It is during these discussions that readers get a glimpse of life before the Rat was born, the reasons for the Rat’s existence, that the man Pearl has been calling dad is not her biological father. Furniss – through Stella’s in-your-face manner – is far from subtle in informing readers just how Pearl was conceived and how the man she has grown up thinking is her father came into the picture.
It is during one of these ghostly conversations that Pearl discovers why Stella died: she is led to believe (though, given its source, perhaps it’s her own mind conjuring up this nugget) that Pearl’s dad’s desire to have the Rat caused Stella’s death. So now the dad she loved has also been “tainted” by the Rat, giving Pearl more ammunition to hate the infant who is her half-sister. And it’s one more reason to withdraw from family life and behave like a brat.
Pearl’s father, though, doesn’t have time to deal with a bratty teen; he’s worried about the prematurely born Rat. He certainly can’t depend on the hostile Pearl to help look after the baby; the one time he does entrust Rose to Pearl’s care, the older girl has issues with stopping the baby’s crying. Though Pearl’s behaviour towards an infant is extremely irresponsible, Furniss manages to inject the right amount of frustration, fear, anger and sadness into her protagonist to give the scenario an air of realism.
And then there’s Pearl’s paternal grandmother – a woman whom Stella despised and who was not fond of Stella either. Much to Pearl’s annoyance, the old lady moves in to help look after the Rat. Though Granny is a temporary mother-figure replacement, Furniss uses her for both comic relief and for speaking the truth. Granny, in fact, is a sharp-tongued individual who does not mince her words in informing Pearl she is being self-centred and self-pitying when “there are others in this house who are also mourning the loss of your mother”.
As with most coming-of-age tales, there is romance, of course. In The Year Of The Rat, Pearl’s potential love interest is boy-next-door Finn. However, Furniss refuses to make Finn the boy hero/romantic figure who makes it all better for the depressed and lost protagonist. In fact, Pearl is not very likeable, despite the sympathy her situation elicits. The author created a realistic teenager – hormonal, moody, depressed and a smart alec. By doing so, Furniss manages to both sidestep the predictability of the teenage romance and the inevitable cheesy ending where boy and girl find the meaning of love and life. In essence, Furniss did not allow her novel to become chick lit for teens.
Using simple language throughout the novel – The Year Of The Rat is written for children and young adults aged 12 and above – Furniss manages present a believable 16-year-old protagonist who is trying to cope with the complexities of life and dealing with death. The undertow is about understanding and living through grief it its many forms: how it affects people, how different people respond differently to grief, and how different people live with grief. The novel is also about family, and how when the whole world has turned its back to you, your family will always be around.
At turns poignant, heartbreaking and funny, The Year Of The Rat is a powerful novel that will touch readers of all ages. Well worth a read.