The Twyning by Terence Blacker

the twyning

Published: 2012 by Head of Zeus
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “What is it about this animal that is so bad and terrifying to you? She’s clean, she’s intelligent, she’s gentle – she’s never bitten anyone.”

Distinctly Dickensian in setting, The Twyning is the tale of a war. It is a war between humans and rats as the residents of an unnamed Victorian town unify under the leadership of a rather sinister doctor who is obsessed with the extermination of this singularly determined species. The novel alternates between a human perspective and a rodent one:  Dogboy is a young street orphan, himself a scavenger, scraping a living working both for the Doctor and for a man who traps rats to be used in the local terrier pits. But the novel’s most memorable voice is that of Efren, a restless young rat on the margins of rat society who comes to play a crucial role in the future of his colony, or ‘Kingdom’ as Blacker terms rat society. This is a pacy, enjoyable read with plenty of tension and rich in detail that is sometimes gruesome but never gratuitous – because nature is cruel and survival is hard, for rats and underprivileged humans alike.

Although, more than anything, how you respond to Blacker’s novel is likely to be determined by how you feel about the creatures it stars. So I should probably declare my allegiance now:

Meet Atlas, Wheatley. Radigan and Tavish

Meet my “Fragiles” (as Efren’s society terms fancy rats): Atlas, Wheatley. Radigan and Tavish

I am a rat lover. My husband and I have kept rats for many years now so the scenes in The Twyning that depict rats as intelligent and empathic team-workers really weren’t revelations to me, although I imagine they could be for some. Blacker imagines rat society as divided into courts each with a distinct function: the warriors, the tasters, the spies and so on. I really liked this conception. It chimes so well with my experience of these fascinating creatures. Even in a small group like mine it’s possible to observe the different social roles each rat plays within their very pronounced hierarchy: distinct individuals who can come together to form a powerful whole. But the term “court” also evokes the Machiavellian politics of Renaissance Europe, and rat society is similarly far from harmonious. The Kingdom takes on the qualities of its ruler and as rats are short-lived creatures good rulers and bad rulers come and go.

In Rat, his pop-history of the animal in history, myth and culture (Reaktion Books, 2006), Jonathan Burt describes the rat as “the shadow of the human,” suggesting that we commonly despise them because they are so much like ourselves. Just like human beings, rats are highly intelligent and resourceful with a frightening capacity to over-perpetuate. The uncomfortable similarities between rats and humans is something that Terry Pratchett also touches on (albeit more humorously) in another great rat story: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents.  The mirrored human/rat perspectives of The Twyning really flesh out this theme. Human society above ground and the rat kingdom below it are surprisingly similar: both can be cruel and prejudiced at times, compassionate and kind at others. With finite resources, the dirty business of living may draw rats and humans on opposite teams but both will play better if they learn a grudging respect for the other side. This was what I took to be the overall message of The Twyning, but it’s a moral delivered without preaching (with just a few exceptions: at times the language of some of the less sympathetic rat leaders just smacked too strongly of post 911 hyper-vigilance). Rather,  Blacker does it just by telling a gripping story with characters you can really care about (even if some of them are rats) and I salute him for that.

My main criticism of this book is that at times some of the more human-focused elements seemed rather unrealistic, reading more like a children’s book than sat comfortably with the violence and depth of other parts of the narrative. Indeed, the main plot involving Dogboy’s companion, Caz, relies on so many coincidences and chance encounters that – if this doesn’t sound too crazy – I actually found this stretching my credibility more than the notion that rats had developed an ordered courtly society. Because Blacker really nails it as far as rats are concerned. Of course they aren’t that advanced but if they were this is how they would be, and so many of the ratty behaviours he describes are authentic that I was prepared to suspend disbelief for those that were more fantastic. In short, The Twyning wins this Rat-loving Lady’s seal of approval. Do you need to be a rat fan to enjoy it? I would say not: there’s plenty here for anyone with a taste for dark fantasy-tinged Victorian adventure, but for an unbiased review as far as the rat content is concerned I’m afraid you’ll have to find another reviewer.

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