Friday, 29 January 2010

Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin was yet another book picked up to try and avoid reading Sunnyside. I really think that book is going back to the library unread. I don't usually remember where I've read about particular books, but this one was fairly recent so I can say this one comes from a review at Savidgereads. Narrated by Firmin, a rat, it's not something I would have ordinarily picked up, but it was a glowing review and it's about books!

Firmin is the runt of the litter, who spends his infancy struggling to find space on the teat, so resorts to eating books in the basement of the bookshop his mother has made his nest in. Doesn't sound like a particularly tasty diet, but it has an unusual effect on Firmin. It, by some unknown process, enables him to be able to read. As soon as he discovers this, he becomes a voracious reader, working his way through all the books found in the basement where his family's nest was located. As his family desert the nest, he is the only one who remains in the bookshop, and as he discovers the rest of the bookshop, he makes what is probably my favourite quote in the book.

"Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere. After I understood people better, I realised that this incredible disorder was one of the things they loved about Pembroke books. They did not come there just to buy a book, plunk down some cash and scram. they hung around. They called it browsing, but it was more like excavation or mining. I was surprised they didn't come with shovels. They dug for treasures with bare hands, up to their armpits sometimes, and when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it."

Firmin, therefore is a story narrated by a book-loving, cinema visiting, thinking rat. He is not a cartoon character though. He is still a rat, with all the tendencies usually attributed to a rat, except he can read, and formulate ideas. Unusually for stories narrated by animals, this was actually quite a melancholic tale. We are told at the start that it is a sad story, and Firmin is never quite at ease with himself. He can read the books, but as he is a rat, he cannot speak, or articulate any thoughts. He spends a lot of time watching the owner of the bookshop and imagines that they are similar, and even that they are friends, but when he believes him to have let him down he is devastated, although he never quite lets go of the bookshop.

Firmin is a fully realised character. As readers we get to learn all about his wishes and desires, the main one being his desire to love and be loved. He never quite achieves this, mainly due to the fact that he is a rat, but with human thoughts, and his anibility to communicate these thoughts. Although his attempts to learn sign language are amusing, but his attempt to try it out on the public has mixed results.

All this is set against the background of the destruction of the area that the bookshop is situated in, it being demolished for modernisation. This progresses throughout the novel, obviously climaxing at the end of the story. Firmin is the eyes of us all, although he seems to see what is going on and how it affects all the residents and businesses of Scollay square with innocent eyes, seeing only the destruction and desolation in a microcosm as it affects his own world, for example, food becoming scarce as the population decreases, and his favourite haunts shutting down.

I find it difficult to say quite why I liked this book so much. I was gripped by Firmin's story, and his adventures both in the bookshop and out of it. I loved the way his worldview was totally informed by literature and the shock when he realised it was not like this. And his totally unique worldview, and optimistic view of the way humanity would treat a cultured rat! Peppered with literary references, he compares virtually everything he experiences to literature, and even each chapter is prefaced with a picture of a book mentioned during the story. It was just a really entertaining, thought provoking story, and I was engrossed from beginning to end. And I'll just finish on my second favourite passage because I couldn't leave it out.

"I had discovered a remarkable relation, a kind of preestablished harmony, between the taste and the literary quality of a book. To know if something was worth reading I only had to nibble a portion of the printed area. I learned to use the title page for this, leaving the title page intact. Good to eat is good to read became my motto"

I just love this idea!


Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I have a copy of this book, but haven't read it yet. It sounds so lovely! I thinkI'm going to try to read it next month.

Charley said...

I've noticed this book on the shelf -- it seems like a unique story!

Anonymous said...

You and Simon between you have definitely pushed this to the top of my TBR. Thank you!

Jo said...

jackie, it is lovely. Thats a good word for it. A bit sad though. Must be a good book if I can feel sad about a rat!

Charley, Definitely unique, I don't think I'll read anything like it very soon.

Fleurfisher, It's really worth reading. I hope you enjoy it.

Sandra said...

Great review. I too would not normally read anything outside the realm of reality. But with a bookstore and literary references involved I took a chance and what a treat this story was. I loved it. Thanks for reviewing it.

santhi priya said...

A truly motivational and life changing book
me: A truly motivational and life changing book
This book is really a good book which shows us right path. but i read
one more book named "ONE BOOK FOR LIFE SUCCESS" which is truly
motivational and life changing . .The writer has described in Plain
English with lot of examples which is easy to understand...For More
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