Book Review: My Life As A Rat

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My Life As A Rat by Joyce Carol Oates

It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” This quote by Albus Dumbledore is from the first Harry Potter book- The Philosopher’s Stone, wherein he recognises Neville Longbottom‘s courage and ability to stand up to the trio. I was recently, inadvertently reminded of this quote while reading My Life As A Rat by Joyce Carol Oates. I had always found this quote quite fascinating but also a little incorrect. In my opinion, it takes more courage and bravery to stand up to someone you know personally or are related to when compared to dealing with strangers. Much more is at risk here. And it felt like this opinion of mine was validated while reading the novel by Oates. 

Let me tell you outright, this is a heavily depressing novel. This was not an easy story to read. But that is the case for most powerful stories I think. And if My Life As A Rat is anything, it is a powerful story. This was my first time reading an Oates novel, so I was not familiar with her writing style but I was not expecting such a dark story. But all in all, this was a good novel to get acquainted with it. The book is set in an Irish Catholic family, the Kerrigans, living in upstate New York in the 1990s. Despite the story being situated three decades ago, the themes are all too relevant. The family is a dysfunctional one, to say the least. Toxic masculinity is rampant, the word of the father is the law, the sons are superior to the daughters and family loyalty is above everything, no matter what. Oates covers a ton of themes through the novel. There is misogyny, racism, child abuse, sexual abuse and violence. And a lot of it. You can’t help but get a sense of mocking society. 

The story follows Violet Rue Kerrigan, the youngest of seven Kerrigan children. Only twelve when the novel begins and still revered by her family as the youngest, we soon witness her fall from grace when she decides to testify against her elder brothers Jerome and Lionel for beating a 17-year-old African American kid, Hadrien, to death and gets labelled a rat. She did something categorically unacceptable in her family, she dared to speak against them. This leads to her immediate banishment from her family. “I was twelve years old. This was the morning of the last day of my childhood.” This is how the story begins and goes on to show how this ex-communication at such a young age affects her life, her psyche and her persona in the following decade. We see her struggles as she tries to understand who she is, where she stands and where she will end up. You would be hard-pressed to find hope for Violet. Every new character she comes up against brings with them a sense of trepidation for the reader who doesn’t know how this encounter will turn out but can speculate that it might go south. 

While her life takes a turn for the worse after she decides to side with the truth and testify against her brothers, there was also no guarantee that had she stayed with her family, she would have been better off. Oates gives a real picture of the circumstances surrounding the lives of women in a society chiefly controlled by men. Where for women it is “best not to think at all” and look “sexy, but not too obviously”, it wasn’t a very desirable life that was waiting for Violet.

I do have my fair share of complaints with the story as well. Violet becomes one of those characters that face every possible trauma known to man. She is made into this person who decoys all sorts of abusers. Not to say that these kinds of violence do not happen on a daily basis to girls, but their continual appearance makes the story feel predictable in some parts and dragged in some. Violet finds all aspects of her character tested. Her endurance, hope, spirit, patience, all are put to test throughout the novel. Violet’s family appear more as representative characters than fleshed out, thought-through ones. The novel reminded me of both, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, yet they are very similar and different at the same time from this story. 

Will Violet, having gone through a series of horrors, emerge stronger on the other end? Will she ever be at peace with her decision of ‘ratting out’ her brothers? Are hope and redemption possible for her? Is family loyalty, even if the loyalty is to a murderer, more important than justice for the victim? Is family deserving of your unconditional support just by the virtue of being your family? The novel raises and answers these questions and makes you question what loyalty and family really mean. I have read stories dealing with similar subject matters, but the novel is written in a distinctive manner that leaves it indelible in your mind. A thoughtful story that has the power to haunt you long after you’ve read it. These are 400 pages worth spending your time on.

Priya Singh
Priya is a researcher and an amateur movie enthusiast, still figuring out most things in life, not taking herself too seriously but wanting others to.

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