on 21 August 2013
I think I've noticed a trend in the other reviews here. Those who score it highly seem to be unfamiliar with rats, and they're intrigued and surprised by the appealingly complex social creatures who emerge from Blacker's portrayal of rat society, which combines good research and rich imagination. Those who score the book low, however, already loved rats, and were thus repulsed by the amount of violence that Blacker unleashes on them. As a long-time owner and lover of rats myself, I found the book terrifically upsetting and painful...compelling, absolutely, but also a cruel depiction of a cruel world which has been made even crueller than necessary.
Literally thousands of rats are torn to pieces by dogs in the endless succession of rat-pit scenes. There's also the vivisection of an elderly rat dying of cancer and the slow, detailed rat-on-rat torture scenes. It's strong stuff. Blacker's human protagonists also suffer greatly: the two children at the heart of the novel have been abandoned and abused, and they live a rat-like existence in a trash-heap burrow. There's a striking difference in Blacker's approach to dealing with rat and human pain, however. When the girl, Caz, is made to endure a nightmarish ordeal, Blacker sketches it with a few spare details and then deliberately draws a veil over her trauma. It's a delicacy that contrasts strongly with the unblinking stare that records the horrors visited upon rats. A comment on animal realism versus human sentimentality? Combined with humanity's gigantic capacity for visiting destruction upon other creatures? Aye, perhaps, but hard going nonetheless.
The Twyning gives us two visions of fascism, rat and human. In both, people's desire for security is turned into a weapon by those seeking power. Human violence allows the rat kingdom to be pulled into fascism, with vicious courtiers scheming while being squished in a big rat pile (a paradoxically adorable scene), and old warriors being tortured to death in the name of unity and security. Just as a note, Blacker inserts some genuinely odd gender politics into his ratty fascism, with his gentle doe dictator and the matronly female torturer who specialises in sexual humiliation. He doesn't develop these ideas further, and it's hard to know what to make of it. Up in the world above, opportunistic humans are whipping up fear of rats and orchestrating mass exterminations to further their own petty ambitions. Every crowd is a potential mob--generally bored and cynical, but with an unpredictable capacity for hysterical violence. Particularly interesting here is the examination of those who become the footsoldiers of such campaigns, forced into doing the dirty work by poverty and a habit of ducking blows.
Tenderness and love develop in the cracks of these societies, in the bond between the lost children, a pet rat, and the wild rat exile who loves her. The relationship between Caz and her rat Malaika is rather lovely, although I wish Blacker had imagined it more fully. Malaika tends to sit passively on Caz's hand, which sounds like none of the rats I've ever known: surely she should be scrabbling up her dress, perching on her shoulder, nesting in her hair and nuzzling into her ears? It is their relationship which forms the book's hopeful heart, yet for all its intensity, it remains strangely inert and almost uncomprehended. For while (slight spoiler) it is Caz and Malaika who write the story, they have written it from the perspective of their boys, leaving their own interspecies sisterhood unspoken--because, of course, it's *not* written by them, but by Terence Blacker, who has interesting ideas about love and loyalty and togetherness, yet seems more comfortable describing dismemberment.
My guess is that Blacker has not known any rats, or not known them particularly well. Surely if he had known and loved rats, the interactions between rats and humans would be more lively? The interactions between rats themselves would also, presumably, be deeper, more convincing, and more compassionate. The point which strained my credulity the most was his repeated insistence that rats do not mourn their dead or feel any sadness at their loss. I have known many rats who have lost their companions, and they have all grieved. They snuggle against the dead bodies to say goodbye, and their character often changes dramatically after they suffer such a loss. Really, rats do grieve.
"The Twyning" is a good book, but it's not a great book, and it's probably not going to be particularly enjoyable for those who you might expect to love it most: those who need no convincing that rats are mavels. For such a person, I'd recommend Terry Pratchett's beautiful book, "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents." It treats many of the same themes as The Twyning, but with a witty bouyancy that seems to suit rats better.