Jay Hosking has an interesting CV for a novelist, with both a PhD in neuroscience and an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Given this hybrid background it’s perhaps not surprising that his debut novel has one foot in the world of science fiction.
The three years of the title are 2006 to 2008, though there are few identifiable historical markers and one of the novel’s themes is the plasticity of time. The narrator is a young man newly arrived in Toronto, where his eccentric scientist sister, Grace, lives with her boyfriend, John. The protagonist soon hooks up with one of Grace’s girlfriends and generally settles into a life of going nowhere. Grace and John, however, are going somewhere. It’s just not clear where. In short, they disappear.
Grace and John exit the novel’s presentation of “objective” time by way of a magic box, following which Grace’s brother, accompanied by a lab rat named Buddy, try to track them down. I say “magic box” because the device in question isn’t very persuasive, even as a facsimile of high tech. Basically an Ikea-style wooden cube fitted with interior mirrors, it more closely resembles a magician’s cabinet or piece of installation art. Buddy the rat even passes in and out of it like a rabbit being pulled from a hat.
This all makes a kind of narrative sense, however. Grace’s inquiries are more philosophical than scientific; indeed, the nature of science itself is one of the subjects up for debate. Is science about building understanding, or discovering truth? Either way, exactly what Grace is up to, and what alternate dimension lies on the other side of the looking glass, seems open to interpretation. We are told by one authority that the solutions are beyond human comprehension, which should be warning enough not to worry about them too much.
Though this aspect of Three Years with the Rat is a puzzle without a solution, the novel is still skilfully developed and catches the imagination. A big reason for this is that the focus remains on figures who are all the more interesting for not being very likeable. Grace, in particular, alienates nearly everyone. Even in the alternate dimension, no one seems to care for her much.
There is probably a message in all of this, relating to the need to pull our heads out of ourselves, the danger of withdrawing into a sense of “subjective time,” or the difficulty of escaping our past (personified in the novel as a hunter tracking characters through the multiverse). But it is the novel’s juxtaposition of clashing wills and personalities, as well as philosophies, that makes it shiver with life.