While waiting for my time slot for a tour of the Museum of the Tenements, in New York’s lower East Side, I flicked through their gift store and stumbled on this work of narrative non-fiction. Knowing, from my understanding of Ireland’s tenement dwellings, that rats must have teemed through, under, around and even above the rooms I would soon walk through with my guide, I decided to buy this book on a whim.
I do enjoy narrative non-fiction and this book serves as a memoire of an incredible year in New York’s history just as effectively as it serves as a non-academic introduction to the life, history, and social science of the rat species. There is no significant over-arching narrative arc and each chapter serves as a self-contained narrative; the book could almost be read taking the chapters in any order, which served me well, as I read it slowly over a period of weeks, coming back to start each chapter afresh.
The author writes well in an engaging style and documents his rat-watching activities over the course of a year – a year in which, to the horror of most of the world, the World Trade Centre fell, sparking what Pope Francis accurately describes as a piecemeal World War III. During the course of the year, the author never loses his fear and his squeamishness and the humour is tinged with revulsion and sneaking admiration for the rat, which is truly a master of adaptation and survival. Additionally, we are introduced to the arcane world of the rat-catcher and the exterminator, in both modern and ancient times. From ancient Rome, to the persecution of Jews in mediaeval Europe, to the anti-Chinese hysteria of San Francisco’s plague outbreak of 1903, we’re offered a broadbrush history lesson, never in-depth, but certainly enough to spark the reader’s interest and maybe promote further reading round the topic. Even Kilkenny (50 miles from my reading desk) gets a mention, where a mediaeval monk, sitting awaiting death, surrounded by the dead, leaves a few blank pages at the end of his journal in case anyone survives the Black Death and lives to read his work, and maybe add a note or two of their own…which Robert Sullivan has done wonderfully.