Firmin is a rat. He is also a bourgeois romantic, a Ginger Rogers fan, and – that most woeful of creatures – a reader.
How did this come to be? Well, when you’re the runt of a family with twelve unsympathetic brothers and sisters, fighting for food is difficult (and often, fruitless). Gnawing on your bed, however, is easy. And if your bed just happens to be the shredded pages of Finnegan’s Wake, you might find yourself swapping gnawing for reading; tasting for understanding – and one hunger is born from another.
Firmin’s appetite for literature is insatiable, and soon he ventures out from the dusty bookshop basement in which he was born, and into the bookshop proper. The more books his hungry eyes consume, the more he feels ‘human at heart’, leading him to attempt meaningful connection with humans, despite the fact that he cannot talk, and most people consider him a small, scary vermin. (I only just noticed the resonance between ‘vermin’ and ‘Firmin’. Durr!)
I guess this set-up gives a certain whimsical, Young Adult genre impression; but Firmin is far from it. It’s an adult book about a genius rat, trapped in the confines of his species, and his self-realisation and self-loathing, his failure and his loneliness. Plus, there are sexy bits*. And sweary bits.
I read an interview with Sam Savage in which he said “the voice came first” – he was typing away, and out came Firmin’s “voice”. Oddly, for me, this was where the book fell down. I never heard Firmin’s voice. I couldn’t distinguish it as characteristic, and it left me feeling that the book, while interesting and sweetly quirky, was... incomplete. Unpolished.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed it – I particularly liked the seedy underbelly of Boston that is glimpsed, and the exploration of rat-psyche. Here’s a funny factoid: apparently the book is hugely popular in Italy, where it was renamed Firmino. I like that much better!
*NB: when I say ‘sexy’ here, I mean ‘to do with sex’. Not ‘arousing’!!!!