My Life as a Rat follows Violet Rue Kerrigan, a young woman who looks back upon her life in exile from her family following her testimony, at age twelve, concerning what she knew to be the racist murder of an African-American boy by her older brothers. Which should prevail: loyalty to family or loyalty to the truth? Is telling the truth ever a mistake and is lying for one’s family ever justified?
Rarely has Joyce Carol Oates created a protagonist as compelling as Violet Rue Kerrigan, the young woman who painfully comes of age in My Life as a Rat ... [a] dark, taut novel ... every few books, [Oates] pens a near-masterpiece, a story that captures some of the darkness in American life. My Life as a Rat is one of those gems, with Violet the vehicle for several explorations, including the ways vulnerable girls and young women can fall prey to domineering men and how loyalty to family can lead to betrayal of the self.
There are moments when even the most jaded and experienced reader of serious epic dramatic literary fiction might feel the pages of a new book glowing and expanding their notions of what they might expect to receive from a contemporary novel ... Oates has always been a master when it comes to connecting her characters with the seductive lure of their surroundings ... Hope stays hidden from the beginning of this novel and throughout the story, with a barely discernible pulse, and we keep reading for the possibility that it might rise from the dead ... Indeed, the strongest guarantee by the end of this book is the consistency of melancholy, the persistence of an existence where fate is determined by class, race, gender, economy, and geography ... My Life as a Rat shimmers with possibilities by the end of its story ... Most remarkable is that Oates has added another unforgettably strong woman character to her canon.
Oates is especially effective in picturing the internal life, the self-perceptions of Violet Rue, as memories and fears from the past crisscross her uncertain path into the future. The prose never bogs down and as the story pushes forward, the reader is eager to be pulled along. My Life as a Rat is keenly aware of the feelings of its female characters and the dangerous ways of men ... My Life as a Rat includes many meaningful sideways glances at other issues ... Oates correctly records the currents of class resentment and racial backlash that run like live wires under American society.