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Firmin“I had imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line.” These are the words of a voracious reader, a hopeless romantic in love with Ginger Rogers—and a rat.

Firmin is born in the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookshop in Boston, where his mother, Flo (a bit of a floozy), shreds Finnegan’s Wake to make a nest. Firman is the thirteenth child, and Flo only has 12 nipples. Hungry, he starts eating the shreds of paper and finds that he can read.

This opens up his world and he reads everything he can find in the bookshop, devouring all the books he can get his paws on (not literally—he realizes that eating them means that he won’t be able to read them). But he does have an occasional nibble on a book to get a feel for it. Jane Austen tastes like lettuce, and when the bookshop’s owner, Norman, tries to poison him, Firmin finds the poison tastes like Proust.

In his forays into the outside world to find real food, he discovers the Rialto, an old cinema whose floor makes rich pickings for hungry rats—discarded popcorn and if you’re lucky, a hot dog. But more important for Firman are the movies— he is captivated by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and the actresses in the porn films Rialto shows after midnight.

But he is not a human, and that’s something he can’t get away from. He avoids any mirrored surface that reminds him that he is a rat with yellow teeth and a head that’s too big for his body—nothing like the elegant Fred Astaire he’d really like to be. He tries desperately to communicate with humans, leaving Norman little gifts; in return, Norman puts out rat poison. Firmin tries learning sign language but that has its limitations when you are a rat with paws, and he only gets as far as “hello zipper.” No matter what he does, people just see him as a rat. Until Jerry Magoon, a writer and a drifter, takes him in and treats him like a friend. But Firmin, no fool, knows that even Jerry, who bought him a tiny piano, only sees him as a cute pet rather than as an equal who has read more than the human ever will.

Meanwhile, Pembroke Books is threatened with demolition. The area is deemed to be blighted and rat-infested (as Firmin observes, that at least was true), and the only way to fix it was to raze it to the ground and cover it with cement. Bit by bit, an entire neighbourhood is destroyed to make way for so-called progress.

This is an original and very engaging book, and a delight especially for readers. Each chapter starts with the cover from a book, which is a wonderful idea, but I couldn’t make a connection between the book featured and the following chapter. Maybe there is one and I missed it, or maybe it’s just random. But that is really my only quibble with this book. The illustrations by Fernando Krahn are delightful, making no attempt to “Disneyfy” Firmin.

Sam Savage may have written a book with a talking animal at its core but there is no sentimentality here. Firmin’s voice is that of a writer—observant and self-aware. His frustration at having all these words inside him, bursting to use them but unable to, is heart-breaking. This is a story about a misfit, caught between two worlds and unable communicate with either. But more than anything, this is a story about the sheer joy of reading.