Weekend Herald - Canvas
Choices that define
MY LIFE AS A RAT by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate, $35) The seventh and youngest child in a large Irish family in South Niagara, Violet Rue Kerrigan is 12 years old in November 1991 when she witnesses her two older brothers, along with two of their friends, frantically washing and then burying a baseball bat outside her family’s ramshackle home late one night.
Violet watches quietly, unseen and unheard as the boys, drunk, scrub the bat and slink outside to bury it in the dead of night. As Violet tells it, this was “the last day of my childhood”. She and her family learn the next day that Hadrian Johnson, a young black boy in the neighbourhood, was savagely beaten and left on the road to die the night before.
Violet knows immediately her brothers and their friends have something to do with this heinous crime. Yet in her large extended family, the very worst thing one can be is a rat. In the bleak world of Joyce Carol Oates’ My Life As a Rat, Violet’s telling what she saw her brothers do would be ratting her family out, which would, in her family’s eyes be (perversely), worse than any crime her brothers committed. Yet Violet cannot live with the knowledge of what she saw without telling someone about it.
During the course of the novel, Violet navigates the world of her family’s unforgiving code of honour as it is pitted against her own sense of what is right. Time and again, Violet is threatened, abused, ignored and cast aside as she grows up and out of her family’s values. As if locked in a Greek tragedy, for years Violet is hounded by her choices and their relentless consequences. Although what she chooses to do is right and what her brothers did is unforgiveable, it is Violet who endures a seemingly endless string of awful actions directed toward her, all of which feel somehow retributive, as if she is suffering the consequences of doing the right thing.
Yet she does not lose sight of herself and what she wants, despite experiencing setback after setback. We watch as she attempts to make amends for what her brothers have done and for what her own family has done to her. In the comfortless, almost Dickensian world of Oates’ novel, Violet, despite encountering every obstacle, manages to make lasting connections and atone for the numerous wrongs committed by her family.