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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup