Joe Rat by Mark Barratt

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Joe Rat by Mark Barratt

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This is a Victorian drama of the highest quality, with a sewer-dwelling scavenger thrust with unlikely companions into a great adventure that should break away from the teen-only audience and become a big success.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Red Fox
ISBN: 978-1862302181

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London, the 1860s. If you haven't got it made, then you've got it hellish, and Joe has not got it made. His career, if you please, is to enter the sewers of London, and scrape around in the muck – an ordeal in the ordure, if you please – for anything that can be sold on.

And when he does find something of value, he must give most of it in commission to the local crime bigwig, the slovenly, decrepit, bed-bound Mother. He must also pay her rent on equipment, and rent on his lodgings – and all before he can think of buying food.

Elsewhere, in the idylls of Kent, Bess, a young lady whose parents have fallen on hard times, is being sent to the City to become a maidservant at what boils down to a flesh-market. Not that her parents are completely behind the idea – there is more to her mother's new friend, Mr Trencher, than at first appears.

What on earth can unite the sewer rat Joe, the lamb-dressed-as-mutton Bess, and an adventure featuring an abandoned waste-ground, long-hidden secrets and life-threatening vengeance? This brilliant book for one.

With the pair of youngsters thrust into a world neither could have expected, we can see some semblance to worlds we have read of before. I could cheaply, rudely define this book as Oliver Twist meets a male Miss Havisham, but do not think I'm belittling this for one moment. There are certainly Dickensian and Gothic elements to the book – the locked attic room, spies, the gritty girl not realising the peril she is in, the long-held loyalty surviving amongst years of global mistrust – but this never for one moment reads like a pastiche.

I think with a pastiche there would be too many token features thrust into the story that it would not have the space this one has to breathe, and live out its natural life in such a sparkling way. And what a story. It is one with so much I would happily quote as distinctive, but so little I can reveal, and is only added to by tiny detail that appears unnecessary – Mother's white mice, for one – but that just adds to how memorable the setting is.

Not only are there great cliff-hangers, there are also several better instances of the inverse – those chapters after which one just has to sit back, say Mmmm… and cogitate, before eagerly reading on. I took my mid-read break by chance, and was quite startled by what I found when I resumed – the pace, the gusto, the sheer bravura of putting what I was reading at that instance in the narrative, were all quite dazzling.

There is a claustrophobia to the story (naturally, given the settings – but one slightly lost in the final third, if I really try hard and nit-pick), a grit, a strong sense of drama and twisty surprise, but above all a realism to the book. It is perfect for the 10+ age group, but if filmed might well rank as a 12A, with the shock, surprises, blood and sewers forced down our throats as only Hollywood can. Of course there is a distinctive element to the book from the setting our hero works in – ducking his head under sewerage and risking life and limb in numerous ways – but this is portrayed surprisingly subtly. Elsewhere, if the author needed much research into the life and times of the underclasses of London, you just cannot see the joins.

I cannot finish without saying to whomever might be out there that I still don't know what the last two paragraphs mean, but I can't think of not giving this book five stars. Just as Dickens can at times break into the teen audience, so this Victorian saga should break out of the teen audience and be picked up by all. I think the world, so well defined, and the story so dramatically entertaining that is set in it, combine perfectly here, in what I would hope would become a modern classic.

The Red Fox part of Random House have a brilliant book here, which we most definitely recommend. We thank them for sending us a copy to review.

Scarper Jack and the Bloodstained Room by Christopher Russell is a slightly different beast, but shares similarities in historical setting, and characters, and is also recommended.

Buy Joe Rat by Mark Barratt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Joe Rat by Mark Barratt at

Buy Joe Rat by Mark Barratt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Joe Rat by Mark Barratt at


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