I picked up a copy of The Twyning on a whim. There was a 99p ebook deal going, and I recently got some pet rats – who have taken surprisingly deep root in my life. They’ve got their own blog, in fact – “me and my rat” is close enough, right? So I thought, cheap ebook, cute rats. How far wrong can you go?
In short, I was amazed. To begin with I mistook this for a young adult book – Blacker’s style has the unobtrusive clarity of someone writing entirely without literary pretensions. Having finished it, it’s a bitter and ferociously intelligent piece of social satire. It’s blended with Victorian squalor both physical and emotional; in this book the base animality of the human race is matched only by their low cunning and greed for power. The whimsical fantasy kingdom of subterranean rats is possibly the lightest side of the story, and even so it’s a kingdom with power struggles, revolutions and an institute of torturers.
Rats have a profound symbolic value to humans; over milennia of sharing our world with them we’ve come to see them as filth incarnate, a creeping, invisible vector of corruption and decay. As Jonathan Burt points out in the entertaining if polemical Rat, in many ways we project our horror of our own destructive capacity as a race onto these creatures; they are our eternal companions and in their unsentient innocence, their short and simple survival-driven lives, we see an ugly reflection of our own more knowing exploitation of the world. Blacker turns that idea on its head; in The Twyning it’s the rats who have honour and altruism. The humans are led by greed, driven by fear and stupidity, and turn on their own. Even history tells us that there’s more to the story of rats and their most iconic incursion against humanity than we want to believe, but we choose to ignore that in favour of what we know in our hearts to be true: rats are evil. We cannot stand to be repulsive to ourselves, so the rats must carry our filthiness instead. Did you know that the term “scapegoat” originates from an ordinary goat, which was ritually driven out of ancient communities in order to carry the evils of the residents with it?
As a rat owner, and novice trainer, I’m becoming fascinated by rats’ social intelligence and fearless adaptability. My pet rats came from a rescue centre and were nervous, sickly and underweight. Within the space of three months, they’ve transformed into bold and adventurous creatures who trust me and respond to my behaviour in creative ways: training them is teaching me as much as it teaches them. Watching them learn that trusting and interacting with me was the best strategy to get more and better food, more affection and consequently less stressful lives was an astonishment; I could almost see them dealing with a choice I’ve faced myself many times. And coping better than I often have.
So The Twyning spoke to me on a much deeper level than I’d expected it to. I think it’s a quietly brilliant book; art is that which conceals art, and this book is a prime example of that happening in speculative fiction. I always respect a socially aware author and Blacker is clearly that; there’s a generous place for escapism in fantasy, sure, but there’s so much raw satisfaction in a story that speaks the truth of life as well.