Sam Savage: Firmin

I first heard of this book when a trusted source – I must get a new euphemism for ‘person I know but only online and think has pretty reliable tastes’ – read it in the original American edition last year. I was delighted then to see that it’s being published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson soon, and wasted no time in acquiring a copy. Cuteness alert: Firmin, a book about a rat, is published with corners pre-chewed. You might find this charming: at first.


(At least that’s the way it looks on my proof copy: I’m guessing the finished version will be the same.)

Fortunately, even if the production is gimmicky, the book turns out not to be – and I never thought I’d say that for a book about a rat that can read. (I was going to add ‘Ratatouille it isn’t’ – but actually I thought Ratatouille was pretty good.) And while the charm of the chewed corners might wear off, the book itself only increases in charm – a quality difficult to fake – as the story goes on. It has that rare quality of by the end seeming like an archetype for a story that’s been around all along, which just needed to be uncovered.

Firmin – the pun is both on vermin and ‘fur-man’ which is how our hero sees himself – was the runt of a litter of rats. Left to look after himself, he finds himself in a bookshop where there’s nothing to fend off hunger but printed pages. He discovers not only that when he eats a book, he absorbs its content, but also that there was

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 had only to nibble a portion of the printed area. I learned to use the title page for this, leaving the text intact. ‘Good to eat is good to read’ became my motto.

Of course, a rat of such intelligence can’t do without intellectual companionship, and he tries to make friends with the bookstore owner, and various customers and bystanders, by learning sign language – except the only words he can say are “goodbye” and “zipper”.

It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was the best I could manage. I was able to say this by standing on my hind legs and waving a forepaw – waving goodbye – followed by a zipping motion up the chest with the same paw. I practiced in front of the mirror, wave-zip, wave-zip, until I had it down pat.

It’s a testament to Savage’s ability that in context this seems not whimsical or silly but surprisingly affecting, and when Firmin ventures out in the street to try to ‘talk’ with others like this, the scenes are filled with the pathos of any lost and lonely person’s failure to communicate with the rest of the world.

The story plays out in a shameless but appropriate way, unafraid of going for the heartstrings. Firmin also has a keen literary awareness, referencing everything bookish from famous authorial deaths to great first lines. Firmin himself feels frustration that he will never match Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier for the opening punch. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” he reflects. Well, maybe not, but it’s a great deal of fun.


  1. The idea of animals absorbing the contents of books through eating them reminds me of Daniel Evan Weiss’s rather wonderful “Unnatural Selection” (known as “The Roaches Have No King ” in the US and possibly later UK editions), which involves a colony of cockroaches living in a New York apartment. The cockroaches are born in books after which they are named. They bore their way out of the book thus absorbing the knowledge contained within the volume. One cockroach, for instance, is called Colombia after the might “Colombia Encyclopedia” in which he was born, but the leader of the ‘roaches and the protagonist of the novel is Numbers – born in the Book of Numbers in the Bible, he thus believes he knows all the sins of man. The human-cockroach love scene between Numbers (cockroach-sized) and the girlfriend of the occupants of the apartment was a first for me, but I read the book in the early 1990s and I suppose that kind of material is on the web these days. Whichever way, the novel is good fun and it’s definitely worth tracking down a secondhand copy.

  2. I can’t remember where – perhaps one of my own ‘trusted sources’ – but I read about this somewhere else and thought it sounded great. I can’t wait to read it. It sounds like the kind of book you hope will live up to expectations but often doesn’t. I don’t think I knew about the chewed corners – but I like that idea too. I think more books should look different, I’ve never forgotten reading a spiralled bound Will Self!

  3. I have a new author for you when you lift your embargo. Louis Bayard. I have read two of his novels – they are reviewed on my blog. I just finished his newest, due out in August. These books are really good.

    Sorry to tempt but isn’t that what books are for?

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. Paul, I have heard of The Roaches Have No King, though no idea where, so like Isabella I will be looking it out. Speaking of that, Candy you will be delighted to know that my embargo went ping yesterday when I was let loose in Cambridge for two hours and picked up seven books. 😳

    jem, I’ve read the spiral-bound Will Self too – Grey Area and other stories I think – designed to look like an office products catalogue. Firmin is out in the UK in August.

    In relation to the ‘nibbled’ edges, I gather the publishers haven’t decided yet if the finished book will have these. I can imagine that the nibbled edges would be pricey – I remember reading about a book designer who wanted to give a book rounded edges, but by the time the cost was worked out it would have added £2 to the cover price. Given that so many books now come out in immediately-‘collectable’ limited editions, perhaps they’ll do a special run of chewed copies.

  5. I know what you mean, chartroose. Off the top of my head I can only think of this one and Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, both of which I’ve enjoyed. The biggie I suppose is Watership Down, which I’ve no desire to tackle.

  6. I just finished reading Firmin, and I liked it a lot. Things happen in that book that are unexpected, but they are exactly right. I also enjoyed all the lierary references, expecially to Finnegan’s Wake. Makes me want to get the courage to try Finnegan’s Wake.. I never would have read Firmin, except for your review. Thanks, John.

  7. I figure its always worth checking back and checking in with something you’ve previously reviewed. It takes me a while to get around to things, but this finally came up on a wishlist and I read it over the week and thoroughly loved it. Up there in my top books of the year. Thanks as ever for great recommendations!

  8. Savage has taken a long time to finally squeeze out one small book, some of which is amusing in an adolescent attempt to demonstrate some level of erudition. He also displays some moments of bigotry born of ignorance and isolation; e.g. p.136, referring to “infestation”.

  9. I’ve read the roaches have no king – it’s quite an interesting book. I felt it dragged a bit towards the end though.

  10. Goodness, this thread is still going?

    Anthropomorphised novels do have a tendency of becoming too cute, but certainly not this one. I have no little trouble describing it a great piece of work, despite it’s presentation.

  11. I just read ‘Firmin’ and, though I hardly read novels (I am too busy reading reference material, part of my job), found this to be incredibly absorbing and touching. I myself have pet rats and am a keen advocate for the genus. From this perspective I would say that many rat lovers will absolutely relate (!?) to Firmin and appreciate the sensitivity shown by the author. Great book, didn’t want it to end and made me cry when it did!

  12. Great review of this. Am really jealous of the copy you got thats absolutely fantastic. I just found this thanks to Mee who had written about it and linked you and as I read it recently was keen to see what others thought. This is definately a book that stays with you after you read it, the authors note added another dimension to the whole book. I thought it was great.

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