Saturday, 16 June 2012

Book 50 of 2012: Buddy the Rat

Having kept pet rats for the last decade and a half, when I saw the option to request a review copy of a novella about a rat, I couldn’t really resist. Buddy the Rat by B.M. Hodges is the story of a rat from the pet department of a supermarket and his experiences with humans as well as with wild rats. In the last year I’ve read a couple of books of rat-literature (Mrs Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents) both of which were rereads. I was quite excited to read something rattish and new, though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book although it was pretty well written (with the exception of a few niggling points which I’ll get to in a minute). I suspected that it wouldn’t be a happy story about a young rat and his boy; that there might be a dark element to it just as there was with the books I mentioned above. What I got was mostly dark elements.

I really felt for Buddy through this story. Nothing good seemed to happen to the poor guy which actually made for quite a depressing read. It’s bookended by Buddy being forgotten in his cage with the corpse of his cagemate, the story is largely told in flashback before coming up to the present so you were forewarned that things were going to be bad right from the start. I suppose the part of me that has grown up on Disney films was expecting something good to come around for Buddy because bad things shouldn’t happen to cute furry animals.

Buddy narrates the story, which is an interesting touch, but one that I liked. It was a little inconsistent at times; there were some human things that Buddy seemed to have relatively little knowledge of, while others he was able to talk about when you wouldn’t expect him to. As a rat owner, I often wonder what my little charges think of the world around them, how do they see us? What do they think the vacuum is the first time they see it? What was their life like before we brought them home? It’s interesting to see ideas like this explored.

Unfortunately the family that Buddy is adopted into isn’t very pleasant. His owner isn’t actually too bad, not too knowledgeable about his pet and his care but not really a bad guy. But Master, as Buddy calls him, doesn’t really have an ideal home situation; fights are the norm, his parents are separated, and his brother is a psychopath in training who, with the help of his friend, likes to torture poor Buddy. I have to admit, I found some of the descriptions of what they did, or planned to do to Buddy, a little bit upsetting.

I can watch any amount of violence in films or read books which describe the horrors that people inflict on each other, but reading about or viewing animal cruelty is really hard for me and I very nearly put this book down because of that. I realise that’s probably just me being a little oversensitive, for that reason I kept going (and made a little extra time for cuddling eat of my squishy rattie!girls that evening).

Although I said above that Buddy narrates the story, that’s not strictly true. In the middle of the story, around Chapter Eight, there’s an abrupt switch in the narrative where it suddenly moves from first-person point-of-view to third-person point-of-view. It was rather unexpected and I think it could have been handled a little better. Personally, as much as I liked the way that the story was narrated through Buddy’s own eyes, I would have been just as happy with a third-person POV all the way through. Alternatively the story could have been divided into three parts with the first and last being Buddy’s story and the middle one telling the story of the colony that Buddy went on to join. This could have been announced alongside the Chapter heading and would have made the transition a little less jarring.

I think that the section with the colony was actually my favourite bit of the whole story, in a way it reminded me of Watership Down and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. (if the Rats of N.I.M.H. went wrong and most of the rats were totally oppressed). I would have loved to have read a story about one of the rats of the colony becoming disillusioned with the way of life there and deciding to set out to find out what else was out there, perhaps inspired by a tale from a former pet rat, only to find out that perhaps life there wasn’t so great either.

I won’t say too much about the little niggly facts about rats that bugged me. Having been an obsessive rat owner for over half my life I can forgive little comments about rats vomiting (something they struggle to do as they lack a gag reflex, which can lead to problems with choking) as well as regarding dominant and submissive behaviour (the colony is unusual so I can accept that there might be changes there). But one thing that did bother me enough to make several notes on the ebook was the constant reference to infant rats in their ‘pupae’. At first I thought it was just a peculiar metaphor but as different characters used the same term I began to wonder if I was in fact reading about some sort of hybrid insect-rat species!

While Buddy the Rat wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I do have to make a mention of the preview of another book by the same author featured at the end of the story. Involving a girl and her friend in Singapore who must drive across a region suffering from a zombie epidemic in order to win a prize, it did catch my imagination and I’d be curious to hear a little more about that story.
As I gazed out at the world, I saw a calming fluidity in the way Humans cam and went, like the ebb and flow of the tide. Swells and eddies of random shopping for hours and hours until closing. Each consumer was a living narrative, an inexplicable tale with their flat-head screwdrivers, fishing poles, and white gallon containers of 2% milk.
Location 110

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