What did I know about rats before reading this excellent novel? Well, I was aware of the role of the black rat in the Great Plagues, and one or two diseases they can help spread. I could also name a couple of ratcatchers: the Pied Piper and Tommy Saxondale from the TV series starring Steve Coogan. But neither of these things got me inside the head of ratcatchers per se.
On the other hand, I learned a lot from this fictional work about two such workers who deal with infestation in a number of buildings and outdoor environments. It’s a subject that many will not care to dwell upon – far less dedicate hours of reading time to. More’s the pity, because Ratmen is both enlightening and thought provoking. It’s even very funny at times. Take the ferret called Beckham that meets an unfortunate end. Hard to feel much sympathy for any creature with that name.
Rats are not a fashionable subject like zombies or vampires. Yet, they are very real, which makes this book all the more chilling and believable. I don’t have a phobia about rats or any particular animal, though I would qualify for the squeamish category. I’m sure some readers will be attracted by dark forces and the grotesque. But in spite of a catalogue of rodent corpses and some violent crime, this is not a book that sets out to shock for the sake of it.
Ratmen was never likely to be a comfortable read but this carefully constructed novel makes perfect sense in the end, due to the mad world we live in. That in itself is a fine achievement, especially when it revolves around a vegetarian ratcatcher. At first, the novel reads like a series of interrelated short stories, but it all comes together and really gathers momentum in the final chapters as a day job turns into an ideology and obsession.
The main characters are known throughout as The Man and The Boy. I expect Ely has his reasons for this, but the absence of first names for the main characters jarred with me and I was about halfway through the book before I got used to it.
Some of the description is wonderful and it’s evident that Ely has a deep knowledge and feel for wildlife and the environment he writes about. He can carry this off with apparent poetic ease when the fancy takes him: “As they walked, huge flocks of wood pigeons lifted from the stubbles. Straggling flocks of smaller birds, finches, the boy thought, fled whistling and peeping before them along the haw-studded hedgerows, with blackbirds and thrushes sounding their staccato alarms…”
And the dialogue is equally superb. The exchange of ideas, especially between The Man and The Boy (the apprentice), is fascinating: ‘You don’t have to think like a rat to understand a rat. You have to think like a human… the thing about rats is they’re just like us – their survival instinct, their ability to adapt to new environments, their ruthlessness, ferocity, endurance, their creative desperation.’ – The Man
Steve Ely is described at the end of the book as a writer who is ‘rarely delightful’. Somewhat tongue in cheek perhaps, but he does deal with a combination of issues that people who prefer escapist fiction might find hard to handle: crime, extremism, violence, conspiracy, race, class, identity politics and religion.
Ratmen is a novel of real substance. Once you get used to the many ways of killing rats, you could even start to enjoy it. You might even be tempted into becoming a conspirator in the ‘holy war’ between man and rodent.