Summary from Goodreads
Grappling with grief is hard enough without repeat visits from the deceased. Pearl deals with death, life, and family in this haunting, humorous, and poignant debut.
The world can tip at any moment…a fact that fifteen-year-old Pearl is all too aware of when her mom dies after giving birth to her baby sister, Rose.
Rose, who looks exactly like a baby rat, all pink, wrinkled, and writhing. This little Rat has destroyed everything, even ruined the wonderful relationship that Pearl had with her stepfather, the Rat’s biological father.
Mom, though…Mom’s dead but she can’t seem to leave. She keeps visiting Pearl. Smoking, cursing, guiding.
Told across the year following her mother’s death, Pearl’s story is full of bittersweet humor and heartbreaking honesty about how you deal with grief that cuts you to the bone, as she tries not only to come to terms with losing her mother, but also the fact that her sister—The Rat—is a constant reminder of why her mom is no longer around.
Tell us a little bit about The Year of The Rat
It tells the story of Pearl, whose mum died giving birth to Pearl’s baby sister, Rose. We see the year following her mum’s death through Pearl’s eyes, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss, with the new baby sister who she nicknames ‘The Rat’ and blames for her mum’s death. All Pearl wants is for her mum to come back. And then she does… Pearl’s relationship with her outspoken mum is at the heart of the story and I wanted to make this feel as realistic as possible. Her mum may be dead but she still smokes and swears and complains about her interfering mother-in-law. They still get on each other’s nerves and argue. The book deals with some pretty serious issues but I hope it’s funny too.
What was the most difficult thing about writing the story?
The most difficult thing was that Pearl’s way of grieving is to cut herself off from the rest of the world, to push everyone away. But I needed to try to keep the reader close enough to her to care and want to keep reading the book… when all the time she was acting in a way designed to have the opposite effect! It was an incredibly tricky thing to do – I don’t think I had any idea how hard it would be when I started writing it! It was really important to me to be honest about the fact that grief and guilt and fear – in fact any emotional turmoil – can make people act in ways that are very self-destructive and isolating. People don’t always react to traumatic events in the way we think they ‘should’, or in a way that seems rational. I wanted to try to communicate that, and to show that the way people are feeling inside is not necessarily reflected in how they act, but because we’re seeing everything from Pearl’s perspective it was really hard. It meant that every time Pearl does something that we don’t want her to – refuses an offer of help, or is unkind to someone – I had to try to show that she was doing it from fear, or insecurity, or guilt, or as a way of punishing herself, without actually explaining this.
A lot of reviewers describe the story as realistic. How did you go about keeping the story and of course Pearl as realistic as possible?
I honestly think the most important thing in making a story realistic is to immerse yourself in the character, to really feel that you know them and can see the world through their eyes. All sorts of things feed into that. I did some research into grief and the grieving process, and I listened to and read personal accounts from young people who had lost parents. And although The Year of The Rat isn’t an autobiographical story inevitably your own experiences feed into anything you write. I lost a close friend as a teenager and I think probably some of my feelings at that time influenced how I wrote the story. There’s something specific about facing up to the reality of death at an age when you feel invincible and when you’re just on the brink of living your own independent life in the adult world. But that said, Pearl is a very different character to me and her story is nothing like mine. Listening to the experience of young people who’d gone through something similar, what struck me was that although there were common themes, everyone reacted differently, everyone’s circumstances and response were unique to them. This reinforced my sense that I was right to trust my instincts as a writer and let the character lead me.
Favourite quote(s) from the book?
My favourite bit of the book is actually the end but it seems wrong to tell people the end before they’ve even started the book! I’m going to cheat and go for two quotes if that’s allowed, one serious and one funny, because I hope they reflect the two different sides of the story. The first is something Pearl’s next door neighbour, an old lady called Dulcie says to her. Dulcie’s husband died many years before and Pearl asks her if it gets easier. Dulcie says:
‘When someone you love first dies, they’re all you can see, aren’t they? All you can hear? Blotting everything else out. That changes. They get quieter over the years. They still whisper to you sometimes, but the world gets louder. You can see it and hear it again. There’s a gap in it, where they used to be. But you get used to the gap, so used to it that you hardly see it. And then some days, out of nowhere, you’re making the tea or hanging out the washing or sitting on the bus and it’s there again, that aching, empty space that will never be filled.’
My other favourite had to come from Stella. I loved writing her irreverance and humour. She first comes back to Pearl at her funeral and while they’re talking she reaches into her pocket and takes out a pack of cigarettes. Pearl isn’t impressed.
‘You’ve given up remember?’
She gives me a look.
‘Pearl, give me a break. One of the few advantages of being dead is that you finally stop giving things up.’
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading all sorts of interesting books as research for my next book, which has a contemporary storyline and a storyline set in the 1950s and 1960s. So I’m reading a government report from 1968 on Mother and Baby Homes, a book on immigration in the ’50s and the Windrush generation, and another book on memory and Alzheimer’s Disease. They’re all really interesting, but for pure pleasure I’m reading Mal Peet’s The Murdstone Trilogy which I’m loving, it’s completely hilarious.
Are you working on anything at the minute that you can share with us?
Yes! I’m working very hard on my next book, which should be out later this year. It’s another YA book about a teenager Hattie, who discovers she’s pregnant after a one night stand with her best friend, the charismatic but completely unreliable Reuben. The book tells Hattie’s story but also the teenage story of her great aunt, Gloria, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Gloria’s past unfolds as Hattie tries to work out what she’s going to do about her situation. My hope is that when it’s finished it will be funny and moving and thought-provoking with some memorable characters… but we’ll have to wait and see.Q&A In some ways it’s a very different story from The Year of The Rat, but again it explores family and friendship and love and making sense of life in the face of death. It’s strange how the same themes surface in your writing even when you don’t mean them to!