Head of Zeus, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Sho

The Twyning, By Terence Blacker

The much-maligned rat emerges as an intelligent and sensitive creature in this exciting novel

With the exception of various pet whites, rats normally come off badly in children's and adult fiction. Depicted as perpetually squeaking, although they usually remain silent, and scarily aggressive while in reality they are shy animals who avoid contact, their characterisation has for some time been badly in need of a PR make-over. Step forward Terence Blacker, who in this novel aims to do for rats what Richard Adams's Watership Down achieved for rabbits.

Blacker's intelligent and sensitive rodent hero Efren possesses both speech and feelings. In contrast, his cruel and ignorant human antagonists come over as the truly brutish ones, particularly when revelling in the formerly popular sport of ratting. This involves lowering dogs into rodent-filled pits and timing them for how quickly they make their kills, with the last public competition taking place in Leicester in 1912.

The Twyning is set some time before that. It features two abandoned children, "Dogboy" Peter and Catherine, known as Caz. After finding each other, they befriend two equally needy rats. Communication between all four eventually takes place and many adventures follow before they are finally re-united, while their human enemies withdraw after a botched attempt to eradicate every last rodent in the area.

The rats live under a Maoist-style dictatorship which Efren eventually challenges at huge risk to himself. Peter and Caz face hunger, demeaning working conditions and kidnap into the white-slave trade. Their only human ally is a bemused senior rat-catcher.

Yet once all the main characters are securely in place the limitations of this bravely ambitious story begin to kick in. With so much negativity about both above and below ground, there is a risk of over-egging an already pretty nauseous fictional omelette where no detail, however foetid, is spared. While Watership Down has resourceful male rabbit heroes out in the fresh air after leaving burrows kept clean by ever-submissive does, this novel gravitates towards squalor and vulnerability. No protagonist is quite strong enough to help maintain readers' expectations at a reasonably sanguine level.

But there is still the immemorial appeal of four unlikely outsiders overcoming the odds, with last-minute escapes and near-fatal encounters deftly handled. Blacker also does more than tell an exciting story for all ages. He shows how it is only when characters want nothing for themselves but everything for their communities that they become capable of lancing political corruption. Faced by demands that he become the new rat king, the victorious Efren is happy to cede the post to his bravest warrior.

The future of Peter and Caz is less certain, but we leave them happily adopted by a pub landlady, the only other decent person they ever come across. She closes down her establishment's rat pit for good, so leaving everyone – human and rodent – in a satisfyingly better place than before. And who could wish for anything fairer than that?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams' life story will be told in a biography written by a New York Times reporter

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis