Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Three Years with the Rat is the type of book that I would normally pass on after stumbling on its implausible plot and suggestion of angst, but the strong voice of the narrator drew me in. Like the metaphorical rat, once in the maze, I persevered until finding an exit, and ended with brief elation my journey with Hosking's unnamed protagonist.
Rat is set in 2006-2008 in the College and Bathhurst neighbourhood of Toronto, then still a bulwark against gentrification. A young man, known occasionally only by his nickname Danger, returns to the City after dropping out of university in Vancouver. His connection with the City is his older sister, Grace, a brilliant young scientist who lives a bohemian life-style with her boyfriend and fellow-scientist, John. In the suburbs lurk their uninspired, dysfunctional parents who play a tangential role in the novel. For Grace, the journey from the suburbs to the City is one to refuge, flight from mediocrity and betrayal, the details of which only slowly and obliquely unfold in the novel.
Rat starts off with the mysterious disappearance of Grace and John. This is not a murder mystery though. Instead, Hosking entertains us with a tinge of alternative reality and a strong dose of the psychology of relationships. A mysterious large wooden box and the presence of lab rats in the missing couple's apartment suggest that somehow their disappearance is related to their scientific research. Danger, a non-scientist, finds himself replicating the box in his determination to find his sister.
Like a maze, Rat's plot takes the reader down various avenues before reaching a dead end and backing up in time and space to find a more likely path. Chapters follow the sequence of the first in the 2008, the second in 2007, the third in 2006, and then the time sequence is repeated. This reverse looping of events alleviates the need to assign backstories to the main characters. Instead, Hoskings shows us the complexity of his characters by gently oscillating the surface of this virtual time sphere.
There is a fair dose of philosophical discourse in Rat. Danger's alluring but demanding girlfriend, Nicole (a.k.a. Trouble) confronts Grace's outward irrationality by accusing her of leading a "solipsist" existence. Danger finds himself increasingly caught between supporting Nicole's insistence of living in the real world and defending his sister's mysterious and volatile actions. Along the way, he uncovers a dark secret in Grace's past. Ostensibly, it would explain much of her current behaviour, but the plot soon takes the reader in another direction, that of an alternate reality. It is unclear at what point in the novel the reader chooses to accept the plot as a metaphor for a mind divorcing from reality or a discovery of the yet-to-be-known.
By sheer coincidence, I started Rat after a recent trip to Toronto where I walked the same streets as Danger, Grace and John do in the novel—College, Bathhurst, Spadina, Bloor, the Kensington Market. This being perhaps my tenth visit to the City in the last four years, the soft core-Torontonian sense of resistance to conformity, the espousal of faint hope that art could bring something a little better to existence than sheer materialism, began to imbue me during that trip. Fate so had it that I was predisposed to the meandering nature of Rat and the immaculately controlled angst in Hosking's writing.
Jay Hosking's background as a neuroscientist serves him well in lending to his debut novel a definite study-of-the-mind quality. While Rat is a strong work of fiction, it is unclear whether Hosking will be able to replicate this success in future works of fiction. For this reason alone, he is a writer to watch.
Three Years with the Rat is published by the Penguin Random House imprint Hamish Hamilton.