Firmin is a novel very much in the somber — some would say depressing — tradition of Thomas Hardy. Born in the basement of a Boston bookstore, the 13th in a litter of rats finds by nibbling on books that, unlike his siblings, he can read, think and write (at least in his mind). Choosing to spend his life in the building where he was born, rather than set out for “up top,” Firmin reads widely, scrounges for food, and loves the humans in his building, whether or not they return his affection — all while the neighborhood, Scollay Square, falls into decline and is slated for demolition. His intelligence is more a curse than a blessing, making him aware of his homely appearance, his inability to speak, and frequent reminders that humans view him as a pest, not a sentient being (such as the “goodbye zipper” debacle). Black and white illustrations by Fernando Krahn not only flesh out Firmin for readers, but accent the novel’s bleak tone. The Los Angeles Times refers to the literary rat as a Dickensian hero, but reference to Hardy’s Jude Fawley is more apt.
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