Jan 15, 2009

The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot

The Tale of One Bad Rat is the story of Helen, a teenage girl who runs away from home because she’s being sexually abused by her father. The abuse has been going on for years. Helen’s mother is hostile and dismissive, and Helen feels she has no one to turn to. So one day she packs a bag, picks up her pet rat, and leaves home. She survives in the streets of London for some time, first alone, and then living with a group of young people. She befriends one of them in particular, but for understandable reasons she has a very hard time trusting others, and she can’t stand to be physically touched in any way.

She ends up leaving London and heading for the Lake District, following the footsteps of Beatrix Potter, a favourite artist of hers. There, the peace and quiet, the close contact with nature, and the support of the loving older couple who offers her a home, Helen slowly begins to recover from what was done to her.

In addition to being an incredibly powerful story, The Tale of One Bad Rat has some of the most beautiful art I have ever seen. I won’t even attempt to describe it. I’ll just let these pictures I found speak for themselves.

One of my favourite things about this book is how well-researched it is. Sometimes I get the impression that stories about abuse are more based on a vague social perception of what abuse must be like (something done by a stranger, for example, or a one-time thing, or something that is done using physical rather than psychological coercion) than on actual abuse cases. In the afterword, Bryan Talbot explains that he listened to interviews with abuse victims and did his absolute best to get it right. I love how incredibly respectful of those who experienced this kind of abuse he was. I love that he allowed their voices to be heard.

Despite being about such a difficult topic, The Tale of One Bad Rat is by no means a depressing book. It’s also not an explicit one – it doesn’t need to be. What Helen went through is expressed in a subtle but absolutely clear way. Most of all, it’s her emotions that are addressed. This is not a book that tries to simplify things. We get the whole thing – all the difficult and contradictory feelings, all the doubts, all the things Helen has to work out.

There’s so much to this story. I feel that I’ll appreciate it more and more with each re-read. After I finished it I kept thinking about it, and I started wondering about the significance of Helen having a pet rat. Early in the book there’s a scene where Helen is panhandling. A woman and her young daughter approach her. The woman gives her a coin and asks if the girl can pet her “gerbil”. When she’s told it’s a rat, the woman shrieks in horror and pulls her daughter away. I know that a lot of people find rats disgusting, but many of the reasons for this are actually social. And there are some unfortunate parallels between the way rats and abuse victims are socially perceived. Particularly incest victims, who are often still seem as being somehow tainted.

I always feel a bit lazy if I quote from blurbs, but I just have to show you what Neil Gaiman said about this book. First because he puts it perfectly, and secondly because hey, I can be lazy sometimes:
It would be easy to simply categorize The Tale if One Bad Rat as a fine fiction about overcoming the effects of abuse. And it is that, but it is more than that: it’s a lovingly crafted story about, in the end, the meaning and value of fiction and art, and about what we take from the past, and what we bring to the future.
This is so true. There’s a section near the end where Helen retells her story as a fable about a mouse standing up to a cat, and you can see how telling that story, finding her own voice so she could tell that story, is such a huge part of her healing process. Art matters. Stories matter. They often save our lives.

I’ll leave you with a passage from the afterword by Bryan Talbot. I know it’s longish, but it’s an important one:
It’s only recently that abuse has been openly discussed in some small way in the media, and there’s a backlash of opinion about even this. People don’t want to hear it, don’t want to have to think about it. I can only think of three, perhaps four, examples in the comic-book medium that have ever tried to deal with it, even in passing. This backlash is often expressed in dismissive terms, as if we all know about the subject now and there’s no point bringing it up again. Sexual abuse occurs a great deal more frequently than murder, but watch television for a night, pick up a novel, go to the cinema, and what do you see? But then, talking about murder is not taboo.

The fact is, because the media largely ignores it, this abuse can still go on unhindered. It works in a conspiracy of silence. Most of the victims, the younger the more likely, believe that this frightening, confusing thing is happening to them alone. They dare not talk about it to anyone and become lonely and alienated. Read Helen’s dialogue concerning her feelings. This was paraphrased from transcripts of interviews with abuse survivors. I tried to let the victims speak for themselves.

Reviewed at:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Comics’ By Products
Valentina's Room
Books of Mee
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Nothing of Importance
The Written World
The Book Zombie

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. do you know if Deweys website will be back?

    anyway, I love this already,must look for it!

  2. I know this isn't the point of your review, but I LOVE the Lake District! Those 2nd and 3rd pictures remind me of just how beautiful it is. :D

  3. Valentina: No idea :( And I'm sure you'll love it!

    Eva: I've never actually been there :( I kept meaning to for the whole time I was in England, but there were so many places and so little time. One day, though, one day. The pretty pictures in this book made me want to go more than ever!

  4. I've had this on the wish list since Dewey's review. I'm more convinced than ever that this one is worth buying, so it doesn't even matter if the library has it. Your review was wonderful, Nymeth...you made it impossible for me not to read this book.

  5. What beautiful pictures and such a glowing review. This is definitely a subject that should be discussed more.

  6. I read this for a YA Lit class before I started blogging. I thought it was a really good, and very appropriate, way to handle discussing abuse.

  7. So, I can still access Dewey's reviews? I sort of can't do my letter-format without her side, you know... I don't use google reader, so I don't really know how that works!

    And, the only reason I didn't add this to my wish list when she reviewed it was because I don't read a lot of graphic novels, but since that has changed a lot this year, on the list it goes...

  8. This sounds like a really good book. I haven't read a single comic or graphic book till now. Looking at the number you read, I really should give it a try.

  9. This sounds like a moving story, and the art is lovely!
    Thanks for reminding me that I can still read Dewey's reviews in my Google Reader. I'd also saved the links when making up my list for the Dewey's Book challenge and was sad I couldn't use them. I'm going to update my review of After Dark now.

  10. Guess what?! Dewey's site is back up!!!!! Yay!!!! :D

    I need to read this one. I missed Dewey's review, so this is the first I'm hearing of it. It sounds incredible and is going straight onto my list. The hospital I work at has a program for people with Trauma issues. It's a specialty program that focuses on people with sexual/physical abuse in their backgrounds and the subsequent issues that they face because of it. I know I'd enjoy this one.

  11. Debi: the art alone makes it worth buying. But I'm sure you'll love the story too.

    Framed: I really think so too...and I suspect that having it more out in the open would make a very big difference.

    Tricia: I loved the way the subject was handled too.

    Kailana: As Chris said, the blog's back up, so don't worry about Google Reader! And yes, do add it to your list...I think you'd enjoy it.

    violetcrush: Yes you should! If you want some recommendations just let me know.

    tanabata: It was Chris who pointed it out to me a while ago, but the blog's back now!

    Chris: That's great news. I was hoping that sooner or later it would be. I thought of you when reading the book, actually, because I know you work with people who have gone through similar things. You'll enjoy it for sure.

  12. Beautiful illustrations! Glad to know that the book moves beyond the depressing fact of abuse and that descriptions aren't explicit. Abuse of children is difficult to read about, but makes the news almost daily. Great review!

  13. i hate to repeat many others, but the art work is great! art work on covers and inside a book can sell a book almost as fast as the story!

  14. I love this book too, for the sensitive and intricate story, for the gorgeous depictions of the Lake District (you should go!) and also - this may sound odd - for its rootedness in the 1990s. It's not the sort of story you'd think would set off nostalgia, but for me it does.

  15. You're right, the art is very beautiful.

  16. Jenclair: The book was originally published in 1995, so it makes sense that abuse is addressed more often in the media these days. In my part of the world, though, incest in particular is still a big, big taboo subject. I have no doubt that many kids are suffering in silence. But anyway, the book is about surviving, so even though it's difficult it's definitely a hopeful story.

    Deslily: They really can. I love me some pretty art.

    K: I definitely plan on going the next time I'm in the UK! Not sure when that'll be, but I like making mental plans already :P And you know, I think I do know what you mean about the 90's.

    Ladytink: It really is.

  17. Incredible review Nymeth! I can see your love of the art-the pieces you've shown in the post are great. Even though it's a difficult subject matter it certainly is an important one. I agree if there was more said about it, maybe it would happen less often or children experiencing it would be more willing to speak out and get help. This sounds like a book well worth taking a look at. Thanks Nymeth.

  18. This sounds really interesting. I chose Perspolis as one of my challenge books, since I've never read a graphic novel. It seems everywhere I look, there are more and more reviews for these books!

  19. Dar: you'll welcome! I hope you read the book eventually - I think you'd enjoy it. It really is an important topic.

    softdrink: I hope you love Persepolis as much as I did :D And yes, graphic novels are getting more and more popular. It makes me happy.

  20. Wow, this sounds amazing. I'll be on the lookout for it. Thanks for the review!

  21. Oh, this looks good. I appreciate that the author was so respectful of people who have had this experience.

  22. Thanks for linking. I just remembered to put others' links in my review *knock forehead*


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.