12-year-old Canadian Bob doesn’t remember much about his mother who died when he was little. He lives with his father who drinks too much but is an excellent cook (French onion soup and olive bread soon get a mention) and his quirkily wayward little sister, Marie-Claire (nickname ‘the Rat’) who has occasional fits. The trio work well together and the opening chapters of the book are poignant in the vibrancy of the rich family life they create together despite Dad’s underlying emotional fragility (still grieving for his wife?) and the Rat’s borderline behaviour. There is the mystery of her wisdom, her visions, her fearlessness and determined free spirit. As well as passions for acting, soccer and Native American myths, the Rat is also on the look out for ‘godamn paedophiles’, one of the few occasions when she doesn’t beep out her swear words (as in ‘Ah, beep him’). Rat’s beeping is one of many humorous and original touches in this novel.
Then Dad dies (an event foretold by the Rat) and Bob fears that he will not be able to keep his sister safe in an institution. The newly orphaned pair leave Winnipeg for New York, in search of their only relative, an uncle they have never met. Most of their encounters on their epic journey and in the Big Apple turn out for the good although sure enough one of them is with someone who turns out to be a ‘godamn paedophile’ from whom Bob must rescue his sister. Both the narrator of this story and the Rat’s careful protector, Bob positions himself in relation to his intensely charismatic yet vulnerable sibling with tact, love and diplomacy, often setting aside his own needs. The bond between them in this beautifully adept story is memorable. An extraordinary first novel.