BOOK REVIEW: The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss

BOOK REVIEW: The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss

Simon and Schuster
May 2014, $19.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell



Pearl’s baby sister is The Rat. She’s the reason Pearl’s mum died, the reason everything has changed forever, and Pearl can’t forgive her for that. Because losing her mum is the hardest thing Pearl has ever gone through and no one, not her dad, her interfering granny, her best friend – and especially not her new little sister – can break down the barriers she’s putting up. But what if Pearl’s mum isn’t completely gone? What if, somehow, she’s still here?

The world may tip at any moment. Pearl knows that now. The trick is finding something to hold on to…


This book… I don’t even know where to begin with this book.

I couldn’t put it down.
That’s a lie, I forced myself to put it down so I could get some work done, but inevitably picked it back up within the hour to read “just one more chapter.” (The book technically only has twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, but there were scene breaks within the twelve chapters.)

This book will break your heart, this book will remind you of your younger self, it’ll break your heart some more, and then it will put you back together.

Pearl’s mum died, leaving her alone in the world with just her dad, who isn’t biologically related to her, and her new baby sister. She goes through the typical emotions of any only child who’s suddenly not the only one anymore. But in this situation she also worries that she doesn’t “belong” anymore. Her dad has a real daughter now, a biological daughter, and she feels like she’s being edged out by the thing that killed her mother.

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 he first saw her and I wish suddenly that someone had been there to look at me like that.

Pearl doesn’t feel like she can talk to anyone about her grief, she doesn’t feel like anyone would understand. But more than that, she wouldn’t know how to put what she’s feeling into words, even if she was able to talk to someone about it:

I wish so much that I could explain to her; that I could get everything that’s inside me out, to share it, be rid of it. But I can’t. I can’t even find the words for what’s inside me. It’s just noise; or maybe it’s just silence. Whatever it is, it’s not something I can share. I’ve locked it away out of sight, like you do with things that are very precious or very dangerous. It cannot be allowed out.

Dulcie, an elderly neighbour, gets it.

‘Does it get easier?’ The words are out before I’ve even really thought them.
She looks at me; thinks about it.
‘When someone you love first dies, they’re all you can see, aren’t they? All you can hear? Blotting everything else out.’
I nod, hardly breathing.
‘That changes,’ she says. ‘They get quieter over the years. They still whisper to you sometimes, but the world gets louder. You can see it and hear it again. There’s a gap in it, where they used to be. But you get used to the gap; so used to it that you hardly see it.’ She takes my hand in her fragile, old one. ‘And then some days, out of nowhere, you’re making the tea or hanging out the washing or sitting on the bus and it’s there again: that aching, empty space that will never be filled.’

Granny, her dad’s mum, turns up to help look after The Rat, and Pearl feels even more unwanted.

‘London,’ she says scathingly as she sweeps past me into the house, leaving a trail of relentlessly floral perfume in her wake. ‘There’s obscene graffiti on your front wall you know. And it’s not even spelt correctly.’ I wonder vaguely what she expects me to do about it. Remove it? Or go out with a spray can and correct it?

Pearl is in a downward spiral, and it’s hard to watch. She doesn’t care about things like her future any more, or attending school, or hanging out with her friends; there’s no point.

I almost feel sorry for her. She really doesn’t know. Where do I begin? How can I tell her that all of it – not just A levels and university, but all of it: watching TV and plucking your eyebrows and friendship and ambition and love – it’s all just stuff we surround ourselves with to distract ourselves from the fact that anything could happen at any time. Swine flu. Nuclear war. Being struck by lightning. Asteroids hitting the earth and wiping us all out like the dinosaurs.
None of it matters.

While watching this downward spiral, anyone who’s ever experienced loss, or been lost will be able to relate to what Pearl’s going through. You’ll want to grab her and shake her out of it, then give her a hug, and then shake her some more. You’ll want to somehow help her through it, to let her know that she’s not alone. And sometimes you’ll want to slap her.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll grin like a fool.

This is a story about loss, about relationships, about dealing with that loss, and sometimes not dealing with it so very well at all. It’s about feeling like you don’t belong, and figuring out your place in the world. The characters were well rounded, interesting, and the grieving process was so well portrayed, so real, that you couldn’t help but feel like you were in it with them.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who has ever been or come into contact with an emotional teenager, anyone who’s ever suffered a loss or known someone who has, and anyone who’s sick of young adult books about grief turning into just another teen romance.



BOOK REVIEW: The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss

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