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book review

Jay Hosking puts the knowledge gleaned from a PhD in neuroscience and MA in creative writing to work in his debut novel, but it’s a fragmented story that leaps across genres and never fully comes together.handout

I wouldn't know, living in the proudly rat-free province of Alberta, but apparently, rattus rattus and rattus norvegicus (the common black and Norwegian species, respectively) have their uses. Particularly as research subjects. As John, a grad student in psychophysics and one of the main characters in Jay Hosking's debut novel, puts it: "Rats are inquisitive, stubborn, resilient. They're successful, evolutionarily speaking, because they find a way to deal with whatever you throw at them." Not like those dopey, petite cousins of theirs. "Mice are morons, really."

Rats have an additional, rather specific advantage in the lab: If you implant special telemetry devices in their stomachs, then shove them into complicated, mirror-enclosed containers, they can be used to test out time travel. At least, that's what John and his partner, Grace, have discovered – and what Grace's brother, the narrator of Three Years with the Rat, will spend the next three years trying to reconstruct and then get to the bottom of.

The novel is ambitiously constructed, with each month-spanning section moving slowly backward in time, from 2008, where things are decidedly bleak for our narrator, to 2006, a far sunnier chapter in his life, when he first moves to Toronto and reconnects with Grace and her ragtag group of friends. The narrator is aimless, having dropped out of school three times, and finds comfort in Grace's social circle – especially the stylish, fiery-haired Nicole, whose bed he quickly falls into.

A lot has changed for these characters in this three-year span, but most importantly is that Grace and John have both disappeared: her at first, and him shortly thereafter. The general feeling is that Grace, at least, has fled the city for personal reasons, and this is not wholly out of step with her usual erratic tendencies. But her brother stumbles into a far stranger explanation when he enters their abandoned apartment, above a pair of sushi restaurants on Bloor Street, and finds a huge, mirror-filled wooden box in their second bedroom, which none of their other friends has ever seen the inside of. Within the box is Buddy, a black-and-white rat, who is unusually eager to return to his cage. He looks like he's seen some things.

What follows is a fragmented story that leaps across genre, but never fully comes together. Three Years with the Rat begins by teasing us as sci-fi, and Hosking would appear to walk the talk, armed as he is with both a PhD in neuroscience (as his bio puts it, "teaching rats how to gamble and studying the neurobiological basis of choice") and a creative writing MA. But the novel quickly turns away from the technical realm and becomes, first, a psychological revenge tale, centring on a dead-end street and a traumatic event from Grace's childhood that is only alluded to, and, ultimately, a fantasy of interdimensional proportions.

The shifting chronology also makes it difficult for readers to get their sea legs. Important information is doled out in pieces, out of reading order, and this is for a plot that's confusing enough on its own. It doesn't help that every character suffers from what we might call Lost syndrome: a staunch refusal to clearly explain what they know to everyone else, leading to all kinds of unnecessary miscommunication. The words "time travel," for instance, appear just twice in the entire book, as an object of Grace's utter contempt. Instead, she says things such as, "You're so myopic that you can't see the operant chamber you're in, or how everything you do is being quantified and manipulated. You don't even feel that detached interest scrutinizing your every idiot move." It's a miracle her brother is able to figure out the basics of Grace and John's project, let alone crack a diary John has left behind, written in a knotted, multipart code.

But even if the larger purpose of the box remains opaque to her brother, and to readers, it isn't to Grace. During their one real conversation on the topic that drives the novel, Grace asks him to imagine the past, present and future, all laid on top of one another. "Imagine you had full access," she says. "Imagine how much of a comfort it could be. It's going to be all right. Be proud of yourself. This doesn't destroy you." What doesn't destroy you? her brother asks, exasperated.

But Grace doesn't have an answer, so the narrator decides to exit this situation and go home to his girlfriend. It's hard to blame the guy.

Michael Hingston is the author of the novel The Dilettantes and the editor of the Short Story Advent Calendar. He lives in Edmonton.

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