“Once a rat, always a rat.”
SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
It’s a middle-grade novel about a boy who turns up on an elderly couple’s doorstep claiming to have been a rat until very recently. Feeling sorry for his obvious confusion, they take him in and try to look after him, though his ignorance about How to be Human gets him into trouble.
What did I think of it? Well…it was OK. It’s certainly clever; like many of Pullman’s books, it’s doing a lot of thinking below the surface of the story, about identity and the nature of words and why wishes don’t always come true, about appearances and how stories work and kindness. In that sense, it deserves to be read and talked about.
But I do feel that it’s a little insidious, a little mendacious, in its subtext. As I said above, it’s a Cinderella retelling, but you aren’t supposed to realise this until about halfway through. In other words, it seems to be something other than it is: it seems to be a new story, when in reality it actually is a retelling of an old tale from a new angle. And yet the story is quite unambiguously about taking things at face value instead of analysing and exploring. (Incidentally, I found this in itself rather a troubling moral, but that isn’t the point here.) I’m…not sure what Pullman is doing here? It feels like I’m missing something, because Pullman is a skilled storyteller, but this doesn’t really work as a narrative strategy.
I can imagine this being a good school text and a good way into thinking about issues of identity and storytelling, but I don’t think it works as something you’d read for yourself. It’s too troubling and too unsure of itself for that.