cover image My Life as a Rat

My Life as a Rat

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $28.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-289983-5

Oates’s remarkable latest (after 2018’s Hazards of Time Travel) chronicles how a 12-year-old girl’s fate is determined after her family disowns her. The story opens in 1991 as Violet Rue Kerrigan, the youngest in a large Irish-Catholic family where loyalty is highly valued, grows up doted on by her loving but short-tempered father. She witnesses what later turns out to be her eldest brothers, teenagers Jerome and Lionel, attempting to get rid of evidence that they had participated in the racially charged beating of a high school kid. Violet’s guilt—compounded by Lionel assaulting her and the death of their victim—makes her blurt out the truth unsolicited. Her parents, who can’t bring themselves to believe the truth about their sons, send Violet to live with an aunt in an upstate New York town 80 miles away. Violet spends her life hoping for her family’s change of heart and worrying about her brothers’ retaliation. Her urge to not betray anyone again makes her vulnerable to sexual abuse by a teacher and a lecherous uncle. Despite it all, Violet becomes a survivor who ekes out a living through manual labor and manages to attend college at night. Oates’s novel adroitly touches on race, loyalty, misogyny, and class inequality while also telling a moving story with a winning narrator. This book should please her fans and win her new ones. (June)