(nb: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley)
Last summer, I had an abscess. It kept swelling and hurting until I finally went to the doctor. He had to cut into the damnable thing and drain out all the unholy junk inside it. This hurt a lot, but once it was drained, my pain was relieved.
Jenny’s life is very much like that. Martin Simons’s new novel “Jenny Rat” presents a young teenager whose life has been filled with pestiferous junk, and the shy 28-year-old recluse who tries to relieve her pain.
Michael is perfectly content living alone. He has a nice house well outside town, with a beautiful backyard, and a sizable home-office, from which he does building stress calculations for architects. He’s perfectly happy not seeing anybody for days or weeks at a time.
One stormy Sunday night, Michael finds his front ditch flooded, because something is obstructing the culvert. That “something” turns out to be a very sick, nearly dead girl named Jenny.
He takes her inside, tries to warm her and clean her up while waiting for the ambulance crew.
Jenny survives, and Michael feels strangely drawn to her, as if she were his responsibility since he found her. He visits her in the hospital. The girl has no family, no home, and no money, save what she makes turning tricks. She’s fourteen and looks younger. Life has obviously pounded this girl mercilessly—Michael can sense that. As the girl heals, and Michael grows closer to her, he learns some of her backstory. It becomes clear she has no place to stay when she leaves the hospital, and Michael wants her to live with him.
The girl walks out of the hospital and takes a cab to Michael’s house. She’s shaking with a panic attack. She has PTSD and agoraphobia, and only Michael can calm her down. She starts to improve under his loving care. As he helps Jenny drain away the poison inside her, she reveals more of her inner life to him. When she gets stronger, Michael teaches her his hobby, woodworking. Whereas Michael’s woodworking involves furniture making, Jenny becomes a sculptor. They talk of Michelangelo, and his quote that he doesn’t so much sculpt his creations as see what’s inside the marble, and chip away the excess till the figure reveals itself.
Jenny’s sculpting is the key metaphor here: she takes the tools that Michael gives her, and learns to find the girl—and the man—hidden inside previously shapeless blocks. The resulting figures differ from what the sculptor intended, but they are revealed as beautiful and strong and somehow perfect.
“Jenny Rat” is not always an easy book to read. Martin Simons writes beautifully, but Jenny’s revealed past is simply horrific at times, with cruel aftershocks that continue through her new life with Michael. There are growing pains for both of them—and they do fall in love—however the ultimate goal is for Jenny to be strong and independent.
This novel presents one literal hell of a journey. Jenny is so scarred, and Michael is so withdrawn, that it’s a miracle either of them survives. He helps Jenny feel safe and loved, and she coaxes him to lower his defenses.
By the end of “Jenny Rat,” the two are virtually unrecognizable compared to the early chapters. The growth has been slow but steady—a lot of carving has been done. In the end, we’re left with the impression that these two new creations, sanded smooth, will be just fine.
This novel goes on my “How the hell did the author come up with THIS?” shelf. The idea feels original, though with certain overtones of Nabokov’s “Lolita.” This seemed like an obvious comparison, and then a few of the characters begin discussing how Jenny and Michael could be like Humbert and Lolita. This touch—addressing the analogy—strengthens the plot in multiple ways I can’t reveal here, and it turns a potential flaw into a boon.
Action-wise, “Jenny Rat” wouldn’t be that hard to summarize in a paragraph or two, but action isn’t the point. What matters here is how Jenny and Michael grow, both in devotion to one another and toward individual strength. As a joint character study, “Jenny Rat” succeeds remarkably.
There will be some readers for whom “Jenny Rat” occasionally goes too far, and I admit there are some tough-to-read parts. This caveat aside, Martin Simons has written a beautiful, sadly triumphant novel, one of the best I’ve read in 2013.
Most Highly Recommended