Three months ago, I perused my local library for something new to read. I’ve noticed that I have reading moods in which I crave one particular type of book at that precise moment, and I search endlessly for it. What I wanted at the time was something challenging (a sentence you will never hear a stressed-out student say at any other moment in their life), something that would make me think. In short, what I wanted was definitely not Three Years with the Rat. But I’m reviewing it for you now all these weeks later for one reason in particular; the book is like an annoying itch that won’t go away or disappear from my mind. My recommended treatment, it seems, is to put my thoughts out there about it.
The book’s plot description had a lot going for it. It’s a sci-fi novel entwined with a mystery, in which the unnamed narrator’s sister Grace suddenly disappears. Before he embarks on his quest to find her, he stumbles upon a human-sized box in Grace’s apartment with a lab rat and a note that reads: This is the only way back for us. So begins the adventure to bring her back.
The author Jay Hosking’s bio also provided me with some reasons to read his novel. Jay Hosking holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of British Columbia, thus explaining his interest in lab rats and mind-bending conundrums. Here, I heard the “challenging, genre-defying book ahead!” bells ring in my head and excitedly checked it out.
There are many unfortunate aspects of the book that take away from whatever excitement its plot should provide. Firstly, the main character is incredibly unlikeable. Now, that in and of itself is not enough to discredit a book. Edgar Allan Poe’s narrators are highly unreliable but we read the stories anyway. This main character drinks constantly, even drinking after taking medications and pain killers with absolutely no comment on the dangers or negatives of these actions. It’s almost as if these actions help him. One word: NO.
Secondly, the main character is difficult to believe. When presented with complicated scientific experiments and puzzles, he immediately knows what to do, although he has absolutely zero qualification or prior experience. Sure, characters impressing readers with their skills is fun to read, particularly when we’re talking about detectives like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. But the main character here is not a detective or a spy; he’s just a regular guy.
Third, the tone of the novel is overly casual and apathetic, further exacerbating point number one. With such a lack of emotion, it’s difficult to like or want to follow the character in question. Your sister is missing! You found a creepy human-sized box in her apartment! You drink too much! To be honest, the most propelling plot point for me was wondering if Buddy the Rat would survive, not the actual plight of the missing sister or the narrator.
In writing negative reviews, there is always the risk of audience pushback. I welcome that wholeheartedly; I would love for someone to show me something about this novel that makes it deserve Blake Crouch’s review, in which he calls it “one of the most assured and haunting debuts [he has] read in recent memory.” It is one of the only five star reviews I’ve seen.
The good: Jay Hosking did create something original. He tried to play with the complex phenomena of time and the imagination, no easy feat. But I felt like his efforts were overshadowed by his cast of flawed characters, and that’s where the novel falls short for me.
I love science fiction. I love a good thriller or mystery. But I don’t recommend Three Years with the Rat. I gave the novel just one star on Goodreads, making it the third book I have ever assigned such a rating. I hope that Mr. Hosking will continue to write, but use even more of his studies in his work to create characters who are equally as intelligent and interesting as he is.